UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Back in 2014, economist Lisa Cook of Michigan State University published a groundbreaking paper in the Journal of Economic Growth. The paper was about violence against African Americans from 1870 to 1940 - violence from lynchings, from segregation laws and from riots in which white Americans destroyed their neighborhoods. And specifically, the paper was about the way that this violence had depressed their inventive activity.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
In the process of doing the research for this paper, Lisa discovered something incredible. Patents for African American inventors as a share of the African American population actually peaked in 1899. And that was still the case more than a century later. This was just one of many insights in Lisa's paper.
GARCIA: Yeah. But the journey of getting the paper published had actually started a decade earlier in the early 2000s, when Lisa was starting to put together her research agenda. Back then, she was thinking about studying the historical inventive activity of African Americans, and separately of women. So she ran the idea by some of her fellow economists, her peers. Their response was discouraging.
LISA COOK: That if I pursued anything that related to African Americans or women, say patents related to African Americans or women, that I would never get tenure. Nobody wants to hear just about women. They sure don't want to hear about black people, so you won't get tenure just focusing on patents for women and African Americans.
GARCIA: Lisa did, however, receive a more encouraging response from a separate group of older, distinguished economists. And these included three Nobel laureates.
VANEK SMITH: So she kept at it until the paper was published. But along the way, the kinds of rejections and barriers that Lisa encountered were deeply revealing about the economics profession and deeply troubling. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show, the story of that paper and how the story reflects the failure of the economics profession in dealing with issues of race and racism.
Getting research published in a top economics journal is a big deal for economists - helps them get promoted, helps them get tenure.
VANEK SMITH: In 2005, once Lisa Cook had finished her paper about how violence against African Americans had depressed their inventive activity, she sent it to the first journal where she was hoping it would get published. The journal assigned an editor to the paper, plus a few referees to review the paper and question Lisa about it. This is always the process. They sent Lisa questions. She answered them. She revised the paper in response to their comments. This is how the process works.
GARCIA: But after the back and forth with the referees, a process that can take up to a year, year and a half, that first journal still rejected Lisa's paper. So she sent it to a second top journal. Same thing - rejected again. Then the third, fourth and fifth journals, the back and forth again, then rejected again. So the paper, which she had basically finished by 2005, was finally published only in 2014 in the Journal of Economic Growth.
VANEK SMITH: Now, getting asked questions by referees and getting rejected by more than one journal is common. It happens a lot. What is not common is the kinds of questions that Lisa was getting asked about her paper.
GARCIA: One question that Lisa was asked by more than one journal, for example, what is a former slave? Lisa was so baffled that a referee at a top journal would be unaware of what she meant when she referred to former slaves in her paper that she had to ask other economists just what was going on.
COOK: And I kept sending the referee reports to senior people in the field. Like, help me interpret what people are asking. For example, is this person really asking me what a former slave is? So help me.
GARCIA: Another question that Lisa got repeatedly asked wasn't any better, she says. Lisa's paper had found that violence against African Americans had depressed their inventive activity in part, Lisa says, because they had been abandoned by the government. So African Americans perceived that the protections of the law were not being extended to them, that their patents could be stolen, which took away their incentive to invent something.
VANEK SMITH: But the referees at these journals kept wanting to know why Lisa was arguing that violence against a black person in one state, like a lynching, would affect the behavior of a black person in a different state.
COOK: But that meant if they were asking me these questions, prove that people were affected - had to go find photos of a march in 1917 down Fifth Avenue protesting a riot in East St. Louis, right? So they had to have visual and documented evidence that people would be concerned about people in a different place. And that showed to me two things. So one is a lack of empathy, a lack of emotional intelligence. But the other part was there's no understanding of the history of black people in this country, of marginalized people in this country.
VANEK SMITH: There were other baffling questions as well. But all the questions, Lisa says, were really about the one big disagreement that she was having with the referees. The referees at these journals were telling her that they did not think her findings about African Americans had any broader lessons. The referees thought that her paper was just a niche finding about one group of people at one point in time. And Lisa says this was incredibly demoralizing.
COOK: So when I got referee comments, I had to - I came up with a new regimen. I had to read them quickly, and then I would put them down for a week because part of me was just in rage.
GARCIA: Lisa was also just sure that the findings in her paper were relevant today, that the referees were just wrong. This was especially obvious to her whenever she presented her findings in seminars. She would get deluged with questions from foreigners and foreign economists in particular who saw that her findings could be relevant for their home countries.
COOK: And the people I spent the most time talking to, whether in the seminar itself or after the seminar, were people from China, from Russia, from Ukraine, from Israel and Palestine, right? So clearly it had lessons that were much broader than the population that we focused on, that the data came from. And that was the cautionary tale. You want to stop violence before it gets started, and it can have an effect on economic activity if you don't stop it.
GARCIA: The weird questions, the suggestion that a finding about African Americans is not widely applicable, the discouragement from her own peers to pursue this research in the first place - Lisa says all these things point to a simple ignorance of economic history and of the context in which economics is done.
VANEK SMITH: Lisa says this is being highlighted now by the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, protests that have focused attention on racial inequality in the economy and also on the problem of racism within economics itself.
GARCIA: According to a recent survey from the American Economic Association, the AEA, only about 3% of economists are black. That compares with roughly 13% of the total U.S. population that is African American. Nearly half of black economists report having been discriminated against, and only 17% of black economists agreed with the statement, quote, "people of my race are respected within the field," unquote.
COOK: I would like to be able to give junior scholars some hope that it doesn't take moving a mountain. And you have to have a thick skin to be in economics in general, but I'm not sure that it should have to be double or triple what it is for the median economist in our profession. My view is that we are really trying to change what it means to be an economist, what an economist looks like, who can participate in the profession because we're just missing out on a lot of talent, a lot of new ideas, a lot of new ideas that could be relevant.
GARCIA: To better understand the economy, the profession should also be more open to research about racism and racial inequality, Lisa thinks, not just because it can take so long to publish work like hers, but because the kinds of discouragement that she faced might have persuaded other economists not to ever pursue their ideas in the first place because the race problem within economics does not just affect the research that gets done, it leaves a big hole of research that doesn't get done and therefore a big hole in our understanding of how the economy works.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by James Sneed and Camille Peterson. THE INDICATOR is fact-checked by Brittany Cronin and edited by Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.