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3 Reasons Economists Have So Much Trouble Understanding Race

Isheka N. Harrison

Written by Isheka N. Harrison

Aug 05, 2020

A new survey from the Institute for New Economic Thinking sheds light on implicit bias economists may have, making it difficult for them to understand race. Photo by Blogging Guide on Unsplash

A new survey from the Institute for New Economic Thinking is shedding light on implicit bias economists may have, which make it difficult for them to understand race. Over 500 economists were surveyed and findings imply the way economics is taught makes it difficult for those in the field to address structural racism, according to a recent report on the results.

The survey found that mainstream economists are the least likely to teach about racial inequalities and colonialism. “Only 38 percent of respondents in mainstream economics departments claim to teach courses that allow for an understanding of racialized inequalities and/or the role of European colonialism in shaping economic outcomes,” the report states.

This means 67 percent of mainstream economists do not teach such courses, thus failing to equip future economists with the knowledge they need to take the impacts of racism and colonialism into consideration.

The report further states that “homo economicus (or the assumed belief that all human beings are rational) hides the interconnectedness of race and class by reducing racism to individual actions and racialized injustices and inequalities to the personal insufficiencies of the non-white.”

The survey shows the way economics is taught doesn’t factor in any sort of identity-based discrimination. Rather than blame inequities on systemic racism and discrimination, mainstream economists tend to believe tastes and cultures cause poverty and other societal ills, the report continues.

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The survey also found geographical location influenced whether racial inequalities, the role of European colonialism and structural influences were taught in economics. It found 86 percent of economists in the global South teach about the matters compared to 54 percent in the global North.

Economists answered also varied based on whether they themselves were victims of discrimination. For example, those who study stratification economics, like notable Duke economist Sandy Darity, take these factors into greater consideration.

The Institute said the study of economics has not always been this way, but evolved to its current apolitical and ahistorical context over the years.

In an article on its website the authors of the survey wrote: “Based on this analysis, we argue that long term and structural change in the economics field is necessary in order to make it more cognizant of how racism and colonial legacies impact on economic processes – and that such change must include a reform of how we currently teach economics.”

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