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History of Political Economy 35.4 (2003) 713-730

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Race, Intellectual History, and American Economics:
A Prolegomenon to the Past

Bradley W. Bateman

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, following the formation of the American Economic Association (AEA), professional academic economics in the United States became the home for a very blunt and ugly racism. This fact has been well documented in articles by Robert Cherry (1976, 1980) and by Yngve Ramstad and James Starkey (1995).1 Some of the earliest publications of the AEA are overtly racist, and the early issues of the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Journal of Political Economy are peppered with articles that depict the Negro race as inferior.2 Perhaps the most egregious example of this early genre of writing on race by American economists is Frederick Hoffman's "Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro" (1896), which was the tenth publication in the early series that ultimately became the American Economic Review. If you have Hoffman's tract in your university's library, it is bound together with the eleventh publication in that early [End Page 713] series, Irving Fisher's "Appreciation and Interest," a piece that still attracts considerable attention.

Hoffman's "tract" is really a book, running to 329 pages. He claims to dispassionately survey all the existing evidence on the condition of the American Negro, and it is this survey aspect of the treatise, combined with its prominent status as one of the first pieces to receive the association's imprimatur, that allows us to see it as emblematic of the contemporary attitudes about race among American economists. The long and the short of Hoffman's argument is that "Negroes" are so innately sickly and live such immoral lives (and are, therefore, subject to so much sexually transmitted disease) that they are bound for extinction.

The Good News That Wasn't

It would be nice to think that it did not have to be this way. We often look back at the young "ethical economists" who founded the AEA with some fondness because they have so many other traits that we would like to claim for ourselves: they were intellectuals who worked hard to influence public policy, and they tried to make the emerging American industrialism more humane for the workers who did not always fare well under the laissez-faire system that was advocated by the older generation of economists.3 But the stark reality is that they were not interested in helping the freedmen, who were slipping into the world of lynching and Jim Crow that was emerging at the end of the nineteenth century. When, after the failure of Reconstruction, white violence was becoming a more and more widespread tool to suppress the freedmen, American economists were not where we wish they had been, calling for the same kind of public scrutiny and fair treatment that they found themselves able to muster in the name of white workers.

I began the work for this essay, when the original call for papers went out, hoping to find a more noble subset of economists whom I could hold up as defenders of human dignity in the early American economics profession. I did not want to absolve the overt racists of their actions, but rather hoped that by finding economists who did not follow these others that I might discover what kinds of things distinguished those who chose to speak out against violence and oppression. Understanding the differences between the two groups might also shed some light on the [End Page 714] racist attitudes of the majority. But the pattern that I found, and the list of names involved in overt racism, overwhelmed my hopes.4

I had been hopeful because of the recent work of the historians Ralph E. Luker (1991) and Ronald C. White Jr. (1990). Working on parallel tracks, Luker and White had challenged the standard historiography of the Social Gospel, the religious movement that underpinned the founding of the American Economic Association and that heavily influenced the shape...


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pp. 713-730
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2005
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