Why were there more black experts in 1980's "Free to Choose" than there typically are in today's TV?
October 27, 2007 4:35 AM   Subscribe

When watching Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose" (PBS, 1980), I was (pleasantly) surprised at the high number of black experts (and women) who were guests in the show. Not the usually array of exclusively old, white guys one would have expected.

To be honest, I've never seen *any* public/TV appearances of black economists/social scientists outside of this program, e.g. in contemporary TV. I would have expected the opposite, since racial equality in the U.S. seems to have made some progress since the 70s/80s (or has it?)

Could it be that there there more blacks in this field (or in science, in general) in the 80s than today? Or did PBS have some kind of "quota"?

Disclaimer: I'm not from the U.S., so I may be missing something here.
posted by The Toad to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm reading a book called "The Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein at the moment which might have an explanation.

The book says that programs were set up in the 70s to encourage young economists from Bolivia, Chile etc to come to the US for their education. The idea was that they would be taught free market ideals and then return to their own countries and attempt to implement the policies. In some cases this process was helped along with a quick regime change.

The policy appeared to be a success, with graduates of the program often taking up high ranking positions in their own governments and later organisations such as the world bank and IMF.

I'd recommend the book - it offers an incredibly interesting yet disturbing take on a wide range of world events. Not being politically that aware I can't really vouch for it's accuracy - it's clear there is significant bias again US foreign policy and Milton Friedman in particular, which is either entirely correct or totally one-sided depending on your point of view.
posted by astro38 at 5:08 AM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


A quick Google search comes up with this article, which says that there are very few black economists in the top universities. The article notes that it appears to be a supply-side issue: econ departments seem willing to hire black economists, but there aren't that many.

It's not clear what the situation was like in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when "Free To Choose" was made. I haven't seen the program, so I can't say any specifically about who appears on it.

I would be surprised if there were backsliding in racial equality, though I suppose it depends on what you mean by "racial equality": I don't believe in general that there are more institutional barriers to entry for minorities today, compared to the 1970s, but we probably shouldn't expect to see equal results, i.e., blacks may not want to do economics for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with discrimination by econ departments.

Possibly, blacks in social sciences today may choose to do things other than economics. Other fields of study may have easier tenure tracks, etc. I don't know if this is the case: I'm just throwing out a possible explanation.

Regarding "Shock Doctrine", here's a review of the book by Tyler Cowen. Cowen's an economist at George Mason, for what it's worth.
posted by chengjih at 5:40 AM on October 27, 2007


I don't think there were any more black economists in the 1980s than there are now. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education did surveys of black economists in 1989 and 1997 which confirm this. Although economics isn't quite as white as some subjects — for instance, in 1997 only 0.7% of chemistry professors at good universities were black — it is remarkable how few black economists there are. The major exception to this is Arthur Lewis, the West Indies-born economist whose Lewis-Fei-Ranis model is very widely cited in development economics. He was the first black scholar to win a Nobel Prize other than Peace. Since he died, the highest-cited blacks are Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury, who are largely cited for non-economic work (or at least, work that isn't academic economics). If the JBHE study was performed again today, one person who would certainly appear on it is Roland Fryer, a young professor at Harvard who has worked on race issues with Steve Levitt.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 5:48 AM on October 27, 2007


I've heard that this problem, if you want to call it that, plagues math departments as well - the number of African-American Ph.D.'s graduating from reputable programs is sometimes as few as five a year.
posted by billysumday at 6:06 AM on October 27, 2007


I've looked up some of the black "Free To Choose" experts:
Ernest Green, Walter E. Williams, Thomas Sowell.

I do not remember any guests from south america, astro 83, only afro-americans. Since I'm a diehard fan of Friedman's, I'm not that much into Naomi Klein...but thanks for the suggestion.

chengjih, your theory (about not necessarily getting equal results from equal entry conditions) sounds interesting. E.g. are there cultural prejudices in the U.S. black community concerning a career in economics, or social sciences in general....? Maybe fear of racism (be it justified or not?)

Aloysius, billysumday: thanks for the facts. I was not aware that this is un-diversity (?) is that prevalent in chemistry or maths (Thinking of racial prejudice in the sciences, there seems to be at least one proponent of open racism in U.S. biology...)
posted by The Toad at 6:20 AM on October 27, 2007


Aloysius, billysumday: thanks for the facts. I was not aware that this is un-diversity (?) is that prevalent in chemistry or maths (Thinking of racial prejudice in the sciences, there seems to be at least one proponent of open racism in U.S. biology...)

It's not prejudice, but self-selection. Graduate programs and hiring universities are stumbling over themselves to get the most qualified African-American candidates in hard sciences. This is why many mid-level colleges have such a difficult time hiring quality black academics - all of the good ones are aggressively pursued by prestigious universities. But it does create a predictable cycle - ie, there are few to none African-American professors in chemistry and math, so African-American students do not feel comfortable and have a more difficult time identifying with the professors in those fields (old white guys). Where are the African-American professors? Arts, humanities. So the African-American students gravitate towards those departments. But schools can't just start hiring chemistry and math professors of a certain race because they want to - they still have a very slim pool from which to pick.
posted by billysumday at 6:46 AM on October 27, 2007


This is a bit tangential, but Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution and Walter E. Williams, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, are also famous black economists who you might be interested in if you're interested in Friedman.
posted by Jahaza at 6:59 AM on October 27, 2007


I don't know why there would be more in the 1980s than today, or even if there were more in the 1980s than today.

I think that in 1980, the "stuffy old white guys" who would have been the tenured professors and go-to guys for most programs would have radically different ideas about economics compared with Friedman.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:15 AM on October 27, 2007


I think that in 1980, the "stuffy old white guys" who would have been the tenured professors and go-to guys for most programs would have radically different ideas about economics compared with Friedman.
Ah! There might be some truth in that...

billysumday, yeah, I get the point...seems to be a similar problem in Oxford. I was just thinking about racist attitudes in science in general and came up with Watson. Of course he doesn't represent normal U.S. scientists, but is an outlier in this regard.
posted by The Toad at 11:01 AM on October 27, 2007


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