On June 15, 1921, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander became the first African American to gain a doctoral degree in economics when she completed her work at the University of Pennsylvania.
Racial discrimination undermined Alexander's life as well as the collective memory of her work and breadth of economic thought. But the speeches that she left behind attest to her brilliance and the relevance of her prescient observations to our current political economy. Indeed, she identified economic deprivation as the major obstacle for political, racial and economic equality, all of which remain elusive today. Her solution - full employment job guarantees - may be what we need to finally address persistent job discrimination, involuntary unemployment, inadequate wages and the racial disparities these injustices exacerbate.
Alexander worked toward her doctorate knowing the violence that accompanied Black success. Two weeks before her graduation in 1921, she read reports about how White residents of Tulsa burned down the most prosperous African American community in the country, the Greenwood District, by destroying 35 city blocks, an event that led to African American deaths, arrests and the displacement of some 10,000 African American residents.
A few years earlier, Alexander had seen similar violence and injustice up close in her hometown of Philadelphia, when White mob attacks on African Americans escalated into four days of mayhem in July 1918. By July 30, city police had arrested some 60 Black residents even though Whites were the main instigators of the deadly clashes.
White rage, fueled by the perception of African American social and economic mobility, aimed to stifle Black political, geographic and economic aspirations. As a graduate student, Alexander studied the Great Migration of African Americans who fled suppression and racial terror in the South. They went north seeking voting rights, educational and job opportunities and justice in the courts of law. In her dissertation, Alexander calculated Philadelphia migrants' living expenses and the degree to which their earnings enabled them to be self-reliant. She found that the majority of migrants were able to earn a living wage, thus countering the perception of longtime Philadelphia residents that migrants were an economic drain on the city.
She graduated with stellar credentials. Her dissertation was published as a supplement to The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and she received employment recommendations from her professors. And yet, no one hired her that year into a position that was commensurate with her level of education. She eventually went back to Penn and earned a law degree in 1927, the first Black woman in the state to do so. Alexander had a distinguished career as an attorney working along with her husband, Raymond Pace Alexander, to achieve African American citizenship rights.
During this career, she was a principal member of civil rights organizations that included the National Bar Association and the National Urban League. Alexander became a public intellectual whose speeches focused on structural barriers that prevented African Americans from having full access to democratic and economic rights of citizenship. She also called for social action and policy changes to dismantle the barriers. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman appointed her to serve on a newly formed President's Committee on Civil Rights, which investigated the ways in which the denial of civil rights and liberties - especially for Black Americans - diverged from our national ideals. The committee's report, "To Secure These Rights," provided recommendations to improve civil rights, including desegregation of the military.
By the time Alexander served on the Civil Rights Committee, the specter of racial violence had already left an indelible imprint on her economic thoughts regarding Black workers' prospects for job mobility and the role of government in the macroeconomy. Motivated by the example of the government's ability to achieve full employment through direct job creation during World War II, including an unprecedented increase in Black industrial employment, Alexander advocated in 1945 for a federal job guarantee for all who were willing and able to work, as a fundamental right of citizenship in the post-war period. She was the first economist in the nation to do so. She feared that the War Production Board's plan to cut munitions employment after the war by 40% would affect Black workers more than White workers. She unveiled this idea while speaking to an African American assembly at Florida A&M University. Her speech focused on the racial aspects of arguments that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made about the need for a Second Bill of Rights to provide economic security. She believed that full employment was the only solution to the problem of persistent unemployment for Black workers because of the entrenched racial discrimination they faced in hiring and because White workers' fears of competition for jobs in short supply too often turned violent and deadly.
As a proponent of economic justice, Alexander believed that all people had a right to jobs that paid livable wages, and she viewed this as an essential foundation for enjoying democratic rights. As such, she called on the government to provide an equitable distribution of national income and to create public works programs that addressed urgent social needs tied to poverty and deprivation.
In the 1960s, Black anger over mistreatment in urban slums, where decades of White racial hostility and public policy had confined them, and a lack of economic access erupted in a string of uprisings in cities of all shapes and sizes.
Alexander saw the moral dimension of the civil rights cause, but uniquely, she also understood the economic dynamic, thanks to her training. She knew that despite White claims to the contrary, economic uncertainty among Whites was not the cause of racial violence plaguing Black lives. Rather, it merely acted as an accelerant that intensified their scapegoating and racial animus toward Black Americans.
Yet, Alexander's work and advice got largely ignored.
In the economics profession, Alexander was a mere footnote until Julianne Malveaux published an incisive article in 1991 that discussed the implications of her absence from the economics profession. Motivated by Malveaux's article, over a decade later I began researching Alexander's records and found that she had continued to practice economics in the public realm, primarily through speeches she delivered to Black audiences about the economic status of African Americans.
The events that led to last summer's racial justice uprising bear witness to the ongoing relevance of Alexander's political economic thought to our current crisis. The devastating impact of covid-19 on Black American communities, the state-sanctioned murders of unarmed Black men, women and children by the police, and the disproportionate burdens and harm to Black workers during the pandemic as essential workers and as job losers have all been nurtured by a long history of, as Alexander once put it, "degradation, discrimination and segregation."