National Economic Association

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National Economic Association






The National Economic Association was founded in 1969 as the Caucus of Black Economists (CBE). At that time, fewer than three score African Americans in the United States were identified as holding a PhD in economics. Most were employed as faculty or administrators in historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). A small number held faculty positions at major research universities throughout the country. Others held professional positions in the federal government in agencies including the Department of Labor, Agriculture, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development, and in the Federal Reserve system. The great majority of black economists were men, but the first African American known to earn a PhD in economics was a woman, Sadie T. M. Alexander, a member of an old Philadelphia family. She received her degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. The most prominent African American woman in economics in 1969 was Phyllis A. Wallace, who had earned her PhD from Yale University in 1948 and was then director of technical studies at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Given the gender mix of African American economists when the NEA was founded, it is important to note that an increasing number of African American women have completed doctoral degree programs and entered the field since 1969. The narrowing gender gap among black economists might reflect the black female/male imbalance in higher education, where many institutions show a ratio of two or more black women enrolled for every black man. (A similar gender gap is seen in the greater proportion of African American women than men entering the medical and legal professions in recent years.)


Economists are organized around fields of topical interest, such as the American Economic Association (AEA), American Finance Association (AFA), Econometric Society (ES), Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), and others. In 1969 there were seven such organizations; by the end of the twentieth century there were fifty-one. Most economists hold membership in two or more such groups. Each year, economists from the various fields gather together at the Allied Social Sciences Association (ASSA) meetings to present and discuss new research, debate economic policy issues, and address other matters of interest to the profession. Many African American economists hold memberships in the organizations, and attend the annual meetings. But in 1969, few African Americans were invited to present papers or act as discussants on research panels and in policy forums.

The 1960s was a period of increased black assertiveness, as reflected in the emergence of the civil rights movement, the black power movement, and organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam. Black members in mainstream professional organizations began to organize affinity groups to address issues of particular interest to black people in those fields. In that climate, a group of black economists gathered together during the 1969 ASSA meetings in New York City to organize the Caucus of Black Economists.

Leading the organizational effort was a group of black economists who were affiliated with major academic institutions. The key organizers were Charles Z. Wilson, professor of economics and vice chancellor of UCLA, and Professor Marcus A. Alexis, University of Rochester. Joining them were Professor Thaddeus Spratlen, University of Washington; Professor Karl Gregory, Oakland University, Michigan; Richard F. America, lecturer, the Business School, University of California, Berkeley; Robert S. Browne, president of the Black Economic Research Center in Harlem, New York; and Assistant Professor Bernard E. Anderson, the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

The purpose of the Caucus, as expressed in its mission statement, was to increase the supply of black economists, and to promote research and publication on economic issues of importance to the black community. The consensus view among the organizers was that the economics profession suffered from both the paucity of black people in the profession and the lack of research and analysis by black economists on economic issues affecting the black community. The new organization was committed to encouraging black college students to study economics and choose economics as a career, and to supporting research and publication by black economists and gaining recognition for their work.

Members of the dues-paying organization selected a twelve-person executive board to serve three-year staggered terms. Officers are the president, president-elect, immediate past president, secretary, and treasurer. Membership is open to all who support the mission of the organization. While most members are African American, Caribbean, or African, all racial and ethnic groups are welcome to join, and some white economists have done so.

One of the goals of the CBE was to gain recognition by ASSA as an affinity group authorized to sponsor panels at the annual ASSA meetings. Groups like AEA, AFA, and LERA are allocated a number of time slots for panel sessions they organize on topics of interest to their members. Additional time slots and other accommodations are granted for organizational events such as luncheons, business meetings, and receptions.

In 1971, ASSA recognized the Caucus, and granted time and space for two sessions. That allocation was later expanded to six, including a joint session with AEA. Under the rules of the ASSA, however, only the papers presented in joint AEA sessions were published. The Caucus acquired a publication vehicle of its own when Robert S. Browne, founder of the Review of Black Political Economy, transferred its ownership to the new organization. Papers presented at the annual meetings and other research on race and economics is regularly published in the Review, a refereed journal published continuously since 1970.

By 1974, the spirit of protest expressed by black professionals in the 1960s receded as mainstream organizations became more sensitive to the importance of racial concerns within the social and behavioral sciences. In response, the CBE leadership agreed to change the name of the organization to the National Economic Association.

The major professional associations had dropped their racially exclusionary membership requirements by the mid-1970s and admitted black members. The American Economic Association had never barred black economists from membership, but few other than those with appointments to the economics departments of research universities joined. When racial exclusion ended, black professionals saw much value in maintaining dual membership in both the mainstream and race-oriented groups in order to assure that the special interests of the African American community continued to receive appropriate attention.


In 1970 the NEA sponsored a summer workshop on economics at Washington University in St. Louis in an effort to promote African American students' interest in economics. A small group of black undergraduates and first-year graduate students met with faculty members for a week to discuss economic affairs and recent economic research, as well as the challenges and opportunities for graduate study in the field. The NEA's goal of increasing the supply of black economists was advanced significantly when the American Economic Association organized the Committee on the Status of Minorities in the Economics Professions. The committee was charged with promoting minority students' interest in economics as a profession and enhancing opportunities for graduate study. That goal was pursued in part through support for the AEA's Summer Program in Economics for Minority Students.

The AEA Summer Program was designed and organized by Professor Marcus Alexis, one of the founders of the NEA. The program was hosted by Northwestern University, where Professor Alexis held an appointment in the Economics Department. Supported by a three-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the five-week program included courses in price theory, macro theory, quantitative methods, and public policy. Guest lectures by prominent black and other economists explained what economists do, how they do it, and the impact economists have on public policy and economic affairs. Participants in the Summer Program who chose to continue on toward graduate studies in economics were eligible to apply for a doctoral fellowship/internship program developed by the Federal Reserve Board.

The Summer Program has continued in regular session since 1974, and in addition to Northwestern has been hosted by Temple University, Philadelphia; the University of Texas, Austin; and Stanford University, Palo Alto, California. Since 2003 it has been hosted by Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In response to national developments in affirmative action policy, participation in the program has been broadened beyond African American students to include Hispanics, Native Americans, and others, including a small number of white students.

Many of the students who have participated in the Summer Program since its inception have gone on to earn graduate degrees in economics, including doctorates from some of the elite graduate programs in the field. Some completed graduate and professional studies in other fields, including business and finance, law, and public administration. A few became entrepreneurs. Most who remain in the economics profession now hold faculty positions at a variety of colleges and universities. But as a matter of fact and concern, 90 percent of university economics departments in the United States do not have and have never appointed an African American to their faculty.


In 1969, black economists had produced little published research on race and economics. Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal had published the major work on the subject, The American Dilemma, in 1944. Other relevant work in the field included a theoretical analysis by Professor Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, The Economics of Discrimination, published in 1957.

Most studies of black economic conditions by black scholars were conducted by non-economists. Notable among that work was W. E. B. Du Bois's classic 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro. Du Bois also conducted a series of studies while he was affiliated with Atlanta University. Other black scholars, including historians Carter G. Woodson and Charles Wesley, wrote books on black business and black labor. The most prominent work by a black economist in the first half of the twentieth century was a study coauthored by University of Chicago professor Abram Harris, The Black Worker (1931).

In addition to the scholarly work, there were occasional studies of local economic conditions in the black community conducted by the staff of advocacy organizations like the National Urban League and the NAACP. Overall, however, there was little published work by professional black economists before 1970. In that year, under the leadership of Charles Z. Wilson, the Caucus of Black Economists obtained a Ford Foundation grant to organize a research collaborative which would provide financial support through competitive grants to encourage black economists to conduct research on topics related to the economic status of the black community.

The Research Collaborative awarded grants to a team of agricultural economists at Virginia State University to study land loss among black farmers in the South and to the Black Economic Research Center to support studies on the economics of discrimination. The grant was also used to support workshops and seminars where black economists and others discussed their research. Faculty from the historically black institutions were especially encouraged to participate. The goal was to promote crossfertilization among scholars in the major research universities and others in smaller institutions who shared a mutual interest in race and economics. Meetings were held in Washington, D.C., New York City, and at Virginia State University. In 1972, a conference on economic development in Africa was cohosted by the NEA, and held at Atlanta University.

Overall, however, the Research Collaborative proved to be an ineffective device for promoting economic research by black economists. Several institutional factors explain the difficulty. Because only small awards could be made, most of the applications received by the Collaborative were for funds to top off research that was already underway. Also, in the early 1970s many black economists were faculty members at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where the emphasis was on teaching and not research. Only a few HBCUs, including Howard University, the Atlanta University complex, North Carolina A&T, and one or two others had economics departments where faculty were regularly engaged in economic research.

Black economists affiliated with non-HBCU research universities typically received research support through those institutions. The leadership of the Collaborative preferred not to use the limited resources from the Ford Foundation four-year grant to embellish support for those who, in their view, had access to other funds. In short, the Research Collaborative, while an innovative initiative, was a flawed device for promoting academic research by black economists. Support for the Collaborative was not renewed by the Ford Foundation when the grant expired in 1974 and the NEA never attempted to revive the project.


Over the years, the NEA developed several initiatives to recognize and celebrate the achievements of black economists, including the Samuel Z. Westerfield Award, the Rhonda M. Williams Doctoral Dissertation Award, and the Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Lecture. They are conferred only when a suitable and appropriate candidate is identified to receive the honors.

The Westerfield Award The first award developed by the NEA was the Samuel Z. Westerfield Award, which is conferred periodically on an economist with a distinguished record of scholarship, teaching, and public service. The award is named in honor of Samuel Z. Westerfield (19191972), who earned a PhD in economics at Harvard, taught economics and was dean of the School of Business at Atlanta University, and served as deputy assistant secretary of the U. S. Treasury Department, assistant secretary of state for Africa, and U.S. ambassador to Liberia.

The first Samuel Z. Westerfield Award was conferred posthumously upon Westerfield in 1972. Since that time, seven economists have received the Westerfield Award, the NEA's highest honor: Marcus A. Alexis, Phyllis A. Wallace, Andrew F. Brimmer, Clifton R. Wharton Jr., Samuel L. Myers Sr., Bernard E. Anderson, and David H. Swinton.

The Rhonda M. Williams Doctoral Dissertation Award To encourage and recognize excellence in graduate study, the NEA established the NEA Doctoral Dissertation Award in 1992 to recognize outstanding dissertations written by minority doctoral candidates, selected by a committee of NEA scholars. In addition to receiving the award, the recipient is given the opportunity to publish a revised version of the dissertation in the Review of Black Political Economy.

In 2001, the award was renamed in honor of Rhonda Williams, a black economist and professor at the University of Maryland, who succumbed to cancer in 2000. Professor Williams earned her PhD in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and held faculty positions at Yale and the University of Texas, Austin, before her appointment at Maryland. She was widely recognized as one of the brightest young economic theorists in the field. The first dissertation award was presented to William Rodgers of Harvard in 1993, who went on to hold a full professorship at Rutgers University.

The Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Lecture One of the most celebrated members of the NEA was Sir W. Arthur Lewis, a Nobel laureate in economics and professor of economics at Princeton University. Professor Lewis was a world-renowned scholar on economic development theory and practice. To recognize and encourage work on that topic, the NEA initiated the Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Lecture, which is presented during the ASSA annual meeting. An economist who has produced seminal research on economic development or made a significant contribution to economic development through public service may be selected to present the Lewis Lecture. Since 1985, Lewis Lectures have been presented by Lance Taylor, Donald Harris, Charles Kindelberger, Ronald Findlay, Irma Adelman, and Paul Streeten.

SEE ALSO American Economic Association; Black Sociologists; Discrimination; Lewis, W. Arthur; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Professionalization; Race; Racism


Anderson, Bernard E. 1970. Negro Employment in Public Utilities. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Becker, Gary S. 1957. The Economics of Discrimination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Darity, William R., and Samuel L. Myers. 1998. Persistent Disparity: Race and Economic Inequality in the United States since 1945. Northampton, MA: Elgar Publishing.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Greene, Lorenzo J., and Carter G. Woodson. 1930. The Negro Wage Earner. Washington, DC: Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper.

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Review of Black Political Economy. Published by Transaction Publishers for the National Economic Association and the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy of Clark Atlanta University. Published continuously since 1970.

Sowell, Thomas. 1983. The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective. New York: W. Morrow.

Spero, Sterling D., and Abram L. Harris. 1931. The Black Worker: A Study of the Negro and the Labor Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wesley, Charles H. 1925. Negro Labor in the United States, 18501923: A Study of American Economic History. PhD diss., Harvard University.

Bernard E. Anderson

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