Unsung Economists #1: Sadie Alexander : The Indicator from Planet Money Sadie Alexander was the first African-American to earn a PhD in economics. We think her contributions deserve another look.

Unsung Economists #1: Sadie Alexander

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Unsung Economists #1: Sadie Alexander

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Sadie Alexander was the first African-American economist. She received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921, but because of her race, nobody would hire her as an economist. So a few years later, she got her law degree and went on to have an illustrious career as a civil rights lawyer.


Bucknell University professor Nina Banks has been researching the career and life of Sadie Alexander for almost two decades, and she's working on a pair of books about Sadie Alexander.

NINA BANKS: But economists have not been really focused on her work because of the - I think the belief that when she wasn't able to practice economics that she really stopped focusing much on economic issues. But I really found that that wasn't the case, that for 40 years at least, she was giving speeches around the country. And all of those speeches dealt with issues that dealt with the status of African-Americans.

VANEK SMITH: So we don't have recordings of those speeches, but we do have the transcripts. And in those speeches, Sadie Alexander had fascinating things to say, not just about issues that were relevant during her time, but about issues that still matter now. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show, our first episode of a series in which we shine a new light on an economist from the past, an economist whose contributions we think deserve another look. First up, Sadie Alexander.


VANEK SMITH: Bucknell University economist Nina Banks recently analyzed a speech that Sadie Alexander gave in 1945 at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

BANKS: And in the speech, Sadie Alexander spoke to the audience about the persistence of racial discrimination and the status of black workers as marginal workers. In other words, workers who were the last to be hired and the first to be fired when businesses were letting workers go.

GARCIA: The year before that speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had given a famous speech of his own in which the president had argued for a second Bill of Rights. And one of those rights would be the right to employment for anyone who was willing and able to get a job. In other words, that the economy should perpetually be at full employment, where anyone who wants to work can find work. This would alleviate the economic insecurity of those marginal workers constantly wondering if they were about to be unemployed.

VANEK SMITH: Now, it was already understood at the time that when the economy is at full employment, workers get paid more because when everyone who wants a job can get one, then companies have to compete with each other to attract and hire workers, and also to keep their own workers from leaving them for another job. And the companies compete with each other by offering better wages and working conditions to workers.

GARCIA: Sadie Alexander's early and distinct contribution to economics was her argument that full employment was also absolutely necessary for achieving racial equality.

BANKS: So Sadie Alexander believed that having a fully employed labor force would increase workers' pay and their purchasing power. But, of course, this could not occur if whites continued to exclude black workers from having the right to work. So Sadie Alexander said that full employment was, quote, "the only solution to the economic subjugation of the Negro and of the great masses of white labor."

GARCIA: Now obviously, Sadie Alexander was speaking during a time in which segregation was both legally and informally embedded across American society and American institutions. And that segregation extended to the labor market in which many white workers viewed black workers as rivals, as competitors for jobs.

VANEK SMITH: Sadie Alexander made the argument that, in order to get rid of economic insecurity, the whole working - class people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds - were in it together, that they would all benefit from an economy at full employment and that full employment could not be defined as just full employment for white workers.

It had to include everyone because let's say that white workers were at full employment but black workers were not, then not only would the black workers experience the hardships of unemployment, but also white workers might continue to see unemployed black workers as a threat to their jobs.

GARCIA: So if everyone who wanted a job had a job, there might be less suspicion between workers of different races, which would make it more likely that the white working class and the black working class would work together to bargain for better wages and working conditions.

VANEK SMITH: Another part of Sadie Alexander's argument - when the economy is not at full employment, and therefore businesses don't have to pay higher wages, then the owners of businesses can keep more of the profits for themselves, at least in the short term.

But Nina Bank says Sadie Alexander argued that this eventually leads to rising inequality and would become a big problem for the whole economy. Because if you exclude a big class of workers from having jobs, it means there are fewer people earning the money to buy the goods that were made by those businesses in the first place.

GARCIA: Which, again, eventually could lead to an economic downturn. But you could prevent that outcome by increasing the earnings power of all workers. And again, that's what happens when the economy is at full employment.

And then finally, Sadie Alexander argued that full employment would free people from material want, from deprivation or starvation or from a lack of basic needs. And so they would then also be free to pursue higher goals, to realize their potential professionally and personally. And that would make it less likely that workers would become disillusioned with the government itself or with democracy.

BANKS: And like President Roosevelt, Sadie Alexander feared that economic insecurity would result in, quote, "men and women who have lost hope demanding a dictator to take over the reins of government."

VANEK SMITH: Sadie Alexander was not a socialist. She believed in regulated capitalism, says Nina Banks. But she did also believe that the government had an active role to play in achieving full employment for the economy when the private sector couldn't do that by itself.

BANKS: She envisioned a public work program that addressed he needs that would enhance people's well-being. She focused on improving housing conditions in urban slums or providing electricity to every farm. She talked about reducing illiteracy, reducing hunger and making sure that people were properly clothed. That's typically not what we think about today when we focus on public works.

GARCIA: As part of this goal of achieving full employment for the economy, Sadie Alexander also argued that the government should guarantee a job to people who would want one. And professor Banks believes that Sadie Alexander might even have been the first economist to make that case. In fact, a national jobs guarantee is a policy idea that is being hotly debated right now.

VANEK SMITH: Something else that economists are debating right now is the question of whether the economy is, in fact, at full employment. And there is obviously no way to know for sure how Sadie Alexander would answer that question.

But here is what we can say - the labor market has improved a lot in recent years, and the unemployment rate for black or African-Americans has mostly been falling during that time. But at 6.8 percent, it is almost twice as high as the unemployment rate for white Americans, which is only 3.5 percent.

And according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank, a black worker with the same education as a white worker is only getting paid roughly 80 percent as much as the white worker, and that applies at every educational level. And that wage gap is bigger now than it was back in the year 2000.

GARCIA: And, of course, it isn't just in the economy where there still exists big racial disparities. Another place is in the very discipline that Sadie Alexander tried to enter nearly a hundred years ago - economics. To see this, you just have to look at the numbers, numbers that Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County knows really well.

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: So basically, in between 2015 and 2016, 5 out of 1,158 doctoral degrees in economics were awarded to black women. So that's less than half of 1 percent.

VANEK SMITH: One half of 1 percent. The numbers for black men earning Ph.Ds. and for black undergraduate economics degrees are only slightly better. But Anna is trying to do something about this. She co-founded the Sadie Collective, an organization that wants to create a better environment for black women to go into economics.

And this weekend, the Sadie Collective is hosting the inaugural Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference For Economics. Anna says that it just felt natural to name the organization and the conference after Sadie Alexander.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: She was very interested in economic equality and advocating for marginalized groups. And so we felt that that was in line with sort of our overall mission of sort of equalizing the playing field by giving black women the same opportunities that we've been seeing other people receive in the field.

GARCIA: The conference is sold out which, along with the papers and the upcoming books from Nina Banks, suggests that the legacy and work and speeches of Sadie Alexander, which had been forgotten for so long in economics, might soon find a new and growing audience.


GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Constanza Gallardo, edited by Paddy Hirsch. And our intern is Willa Rubin. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

[POST-PUBLICATION CORRECTION: In a previous version of this podcast, we said Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is a senior at the University of Maryland. In fact, she is a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.]

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