Sadie Alexander: The First African-American Economist
By Scott Sumner
The Economist has an interesting article on Sadie Alexander, who in 1921 became the first African-American to earn a PhD in economics. Her politics were not easy to pin down in today’s terms, as she favored a mix of Keynesian demand-side stimulus and black self-improvement.
Franklin Roosevelt attracted many black votes when he succeeded in boosting the economy after taking office in 1933. However, Alexander did not view his policies as an unmixed blessing:
Some policies designed to relieve the Depression neglected black workers. New pensions and unemployment insurance introduced in 1935 left out both servants and farm labourers. “It is clear that in his years of planning for Social Security of the common man, Mr Roosevelt never had in mind the security of the American Negro,” she said. Other policies made things worse. Many blacks in the South could get only jobs that whites did not want at pay they would not accept. When the National Industrial Recovery Act lifted the wages and prestige of these jobs, blacks lost them. Roosevelt’s national recovery act, she thought, might as well be called the “Negro Reduction Act”.
My research suggests that the National Industrial Recovery Act set back the recovery by several years, after the dollar devaluation of early 1933 had temporarily boosted output sharply.
FDR had two really bad ideas, the NIRA and his court packing proposal. It’s a testament to America’s checks and balances that the NIRA was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 1935 and his court packing proposal was rejected by an overwhelmingly Democratic Senate in 1937. On Wednesday, our system of government will have another opportunity to check a questionable power grab by the executive branch.