Posted on February 11, 2021

Why Are There So Few Black Economists at the Fed?

Jeanna Smialek, New York Times, February 2, 2021

J. Monroe Gamble IV was the first Black research assistant to work at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. He started in 2018.

That one data point speaks to a broader reality: Even as America’s central bank dedicates research and attention to racial economic outcomes and publicly champions inclusion, it has had a poor record of building a work force that looks like the population it is meant to serve.

Many parts of the Fed system, which includes the Federal Reserve Board in Washington and 12 regional banks, began to concentrate more intently on diversifying their heavily white economics staffs only within the last decade, prompted in part by the 2010 Dodd Frank Act, which pushed the board to hire more broadly. When it comes to employing Black economists in particular, the central bank still falls short.

Officials have often blamed the pipeline — Ph.D. economists are heavily white and Asian — but a New York Times analysis suggests the issue goes even beyond that. Black people are less represented within the Fed than in the field as a whole. Only two of the 417 economists, or 0.5 percent, on staff at the Fed’s board in Washington were Black, as of data the Fed provided last month. Black people make up 13 percent of America’s population and 3 to 4 percent of the U.S. citizens and permanent residents who graduate as Ph.D. economists each year.


Across the board and the Fed system’s 12 regional banks, 1.3 percent of economists identified as Black alone. That aggregate figure masks wide variation. Five of the banks lacked a single economist who identified as only Black. People who identified as “two or more races” — of whom there were six in the Fed’s whole system — were not included in the count since their racial identity was not specified.

When it came to research assistants, an entry-level version of an economics job that generally requires a bachelor’s degree, 3.7 percent were Black — versus 5 percent of economics graduates. Just one of a dozen branch presidents is Black — Raphael Bostic in Atlanta — and none of the Fed’s six presidentially appointed governors are.


In recognition of that, the Fed has increasingly focused on disparate racial outcomes — even holding a “racism and the economy” conference series this year — and has worked on its hiring processes to try to improve internal diversity.

Calls to speed that process up could be imminent. Since at least the early 1990s, members of Congress have pushed the central bank to hire a staff that looks more like America. More recently, President Biden pledged to push the Fed to diversify as part of his campaign platform. He also suggested changing the Federal Reserve Act so that policymakers focus more on gaps in racial economic outcomes including wages, jobs and wealth.

It remains to be seen whether those positions make it into policy, but Mr. Biden has hired broadly for top administration roles, including tapping Cecilia Rouse, a Black economist, as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. None of the top Fed posts in Washington that are appointed by the president have been filled yet — only one is vacant — but diversity is likely to be a consideration.

At a staff level, change will require a more systemic effort. Mr. Gamble, who goes by Monroe and is in his 20s, has a story that bears on that challenge in hopeful and cautionary ways.


Mr. Gamble started at Virginia Tech on a full scholarship, but health issues prompted him to drop out of that program — then another one. {snip}

He kept his dream of graduating alive. It took him seven years, several colleges and five attempts at multivariate calculus — which he found high school had left him underprepared for — but he finished in 2017 with a degree in business, emphasis on economics, and a minor in mathematics from the University of Missouri.

Every story is unique, but Mr. Gamble’s is in line with that of many other young Black men: For the group of students who entered college in 2010, government data show that just 34 percent of Black men graduated within six years, compared with 57 percent of men overall.

Such résumés can be a kiss of death in a field like economics, where every summer internship and transcript grade dictates future opportunities.


His story suggests that diversifying is a matter of tearing down structural barriers that have long shut out talented people of color and offering support and inclusion once they arrive.

Fed officials in Washington said they were trying to better serve those goals. The board in 2018 hired Quentin Johnson as its first diversity outreach manager, and he is deepening the system’s relationships with a broad set of schools, including historically Black colleges and universities. Recruiting practices are becoming standardized to correct for hidden biases, the officials said.