Lisa D. Cook from Michigan State University shows how the racism and sexism hurt us all
Lisa D. Cook was two or three years old when the problem of race came up.
she, literally. Children at her Georgia kindergarten called her racial
epithet and attacked her, leaving a lifelong scar over her right eye.
"It wasn't until much later that I understood that that word was associated
with violence, with racial violence and its true history," says Cook.
Since then, the economist has embraced the issue of race to conduct research.
at the intersection of the Afro-American lived experience and
In a profession criticized for its sexism and racism, Cook stands out for
his gender, ethnicity, and chosen areas of research. Among her
conclusions is that racism and sexism create a huge drag on the world's
In the context of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, their
findings have forced issues of race and gender to a higher level on the economics
agenda, challenging a profession under fire on both points. She has also
be known for her work in development, financial institutions and
markets and economic history.
"Lisa has been willing to take the risk of not getting the professional
the applause she deserves for continuing to investigate in areas that have not
been anyone yet," says William A. Darity Jr., professor of
Economics and African American Studies at Duke University in Durham, North
Carolina. "People are now recognizing the importance of their
He is now a professor of economics and international relations at the state of Michigan.
East Lansing University, Cook has published articles on topics ranging
from the impact of lynchings on the slowdown in general economic activity, to how
having a distinctively black name positively affects longevity,
economic loss of excluding African Americans and women from the innovation
His academic background includes a BA from the historic
Black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a second BA from
Marshall Scholar from the University of Oxford, and courses for an MA
in Philosophy from the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal. She
obtained her Ph.D. in economics from the University of California,
Earlier this year, speaking via video link during the protests following the
death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, Cook considers whether this
The events of the year will be different from successive protests earlier.
"Possibly it could, due to the strange confluence of events, and
serendipity," she says. "Because people are locked up, they've had to
pay attention. So I think this time it's different."
Desegregation of Georgia
Cook knows a lot about protesting and promoting change. She remembers
letter writing sessions organized by her father, a Baptist chaplain at the
local hospital, to protest segregation. An uncle and a cousin were college students
Martin Luther King Jr.'s classmates and joined the civil rights movement
he led. Young Lisa learned from his example.
"I held a protest every year" at Spelman, he says. Their
campaigns included demands that the university divest itself of assets in
South Africa, objections to the curfew, and protests against the lack of vegans
and vegetarian options in the school cafeteria.
Cook and his two equally high-achieving sisters, both skilled attorneys, were
born into a middle-class family in the historic town of Milledgeville,
Georgia. The state capital during the first half of the 19th century,
before the war, Milledgeville attracted money and power from the surrounding
countryside, which was developed by enslaved peoples, many of whom were
bought and sold in the town square to work on the cotton plantations.
Cook grew up in a South still struggling with the tortuous, sometimes
violent process of desegregation. When the local swimming pool
was ordered to be opened to blacks, officials filled it with concrete, rather than complying.
Cook recalls that the only place in town where his family could eat out was
the canteen at his father's workplace.
His father, Payton B. Cook, was the first black chaplain in the state
central hospital. Probably descended from enslaved towns in
Georgia, the family says. His mother, Mary Murray Cook, a nurse, was the
first African-American professor at Georgia College in Milledgeville, and
hired to establish their nursing program.
Violence and economic growth
Cook's past, along with his racial identity, has converged with the
ambition of any self-respecting economist to maximize profit and foster
growth. Behind much of his work is the understanding that inequality
produces market distortions that inhibit growth.
One of his seminal articles demonstrates how violence against African Americans
has hindered broader economic activity, specifically innovation, the key to
long-term growth. In his research, Cook adopts commercial patents as
tangible and proxy measure of economic activity.
Drawing on social and economic history, he investigates how segregation,
lynchings, and race riots during the tumultuous 1870-1940 period reduced
the total number of registered patents. Until 1900, Black's patent applications
inventors were moving in the same direction as those of white innovators.
Then, when the effects of violence took hold, rates began to diverge and
slow usually. The rate of patent filing by black inventors exceeded in
1899 and did not exceed the level of that year until 2010.
"Conflicts can have long-lasting and persistent effects on economic activity"
She estimates that in the absence of such violence, there could have been
1,100 more patents, roughly the number that could be filed in one
European country in the same time period.
The answers lie in the economy
Economics might have missed Cook's contributions had it not been for
a chance encounter with a stranger. She caught up with a
Cambridge-trained economist during an ascent to the base of Mount
Kilimanjaro after her master's program in Senegal.
While studying in that country, Cook had been consumed by issues of
development. "Why are some countries rich and others not?" She wondered.
During the five-hour hike up Kilimanjaro, her partner, whose name now
has faded from her memory, convinced her that the answers lay in the economy.
The result of the chance encounter was enrollment in a doctoral program in
economics at Berkeley. But on the way to her first semester, Cook was
involved in a frontal car accident that left her temporarily in a wheelchair
with multiple broken legs. Despite the urges of his father and
elder sister, he refused to return to Georgia and instead doggedly pursued
Some of his fellow students "discarded me," he recalls.
"She has that endurance, that courage, that determination", Cook is older
says Sister Pamela Cook. "People perceived that she came in differently in a
wheelchair. She proved them wrong."
Cook's doctoral dissertation analyzed how the absence of property rights in
tsarist and post-Soviet Russia led to the underdevelopment of the banking
system. His thesis supervisor at Berkeley was Barry Eichengreen, who says
he was struck by the breadth and breadth of his interests, which ranged from
Russian economic history and the development of Africa to issues focused on
"Before they published their articles, people asked, 'How serious could
be if it jumped between different topics? "says Eichengreen.
" Now it has shown that it is very serious. "
While Cook was conducting research in Russia, his contacts lamented
the lack of innovation in the country. According to the prevailing economics
orthodoxy of the time, if the government enforced intellectual property rights,
innovation would flow.
But Cook believed this overlooked critical preconditions for innovation
such as the rule of law and personal safety. Testing their theory
requires a sample group of people who were subjected to violence and had little
or no legal protection, and a control group whose members enjoyed justice
under the law and had few fears about personal safety. American Inventors: Black
and White: Living in the early 20th century provided the ideal data
Discouraged from the economy
Despite receiving endorsement for his research from renowned economists
including Milton Friedman, the resulting key role in Cook's career took
nearly a decade to be published. Senior economists discouraged her, saying
would derail her tenure ambitions.
"Nobody wants to hear about women, and they sure don't want to hear
Blacks, they said."
The journals to which he submitted his work said his findings were specific to
one group, African Americans, at one point in history; they suggested that
their research was not of major relevance.
Trevon Logan, Cook's co-author and professor of economics at Ohio State, says
myopia was more widespread. He and Cook were questioned by skeptics who
challenged the validity of his topic.
"Why do you look at African Americans?" they were asked. "What is unique
about this particular circumstance? Why would we want to know about black people?
"Which is interesting," says Logan, "because we never ask that question
This dismissive attitude was not new to Cook. She remembers the responses
of teachers and classmates as she toured the best graduate schools.
"Most of the graduate students were men and they systematically discouraged me
from doing a PhD in economics," he says. At two separate dinners
for prospective students, he was challenged to demonstrate his knowledge of mathematics
An exception was the encouragement he received from Donald J. Harris, the
first black academic to obtain a position in economics from the Stanford University
department and father of the elected vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris.
Today Harris recalls: "I was impressed by his enthusiasm for learning, his
strong motivation for successful performance in graduate school, and his
maturity of vision about career goals."
" You cannot be what you cannot see "
Cook, who was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic
Association in 2019, recognizes serious shortcomings within the
"If the economy is hostile to women, it is especially antagonistic to black
women," Cook wrote last year in the New York Times . She cited
the association's own survey of more than 9,000 of its members in which 62 percent
of black economists reported experiencing racial discrimination,
gender discrimination, or both.
In the survey, only 3 percent identified as black, compared to 13 percent
of the US population; 47 percent of respondents reported experiencing
discrimination in economics; and less than half of the respondents, regardless
of race, said they thought non-white economists were respected.
"The only way we're going to stay competitive, energetic,
The knowledge-creating profession is to incorporate as many and as different
ideas as we can, and take advantage of those ideas," he says. "We're going to die
Cook is passionate about building a future product portfolio
economists. She serves as the director of the American Economic Association
summer program, recruiting members from underrepresented groups and often
acting as a mentor. One recruit was 24-year-old Ghana-born American Anna
Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, co-author of the op-ed New York Times with
Cook and says her example inspires her.
"I think being a black woman is everything," says Opoku-Agyeman.
"If she was a white guy, I'd say, 'meh,' but it wouldn't be the same
way." You can't be what you can't see, "he says, quoting the American
child rights activist Marian Wright Edelman.
One of Cook's most striking findings is that the exclusion of Black and
American women from industries that drive technological innovation
nearly a trillion dollars a year from the American economy. She estimates that the
United States gives up 4.4 percent of GDP per capita each year.
The loss from excluding only women is 2.7 percent.
For Cook's fans, his work is not only original and risky, but also
a lot to say to an America currently struggling with its history of
racial violence and injustice.
But his conclusion raises the question: Why do those who enjoy
advantages by virtue of their identity voluntarily surrender those
privileges? Cook's answer: because ultimately they are interested in
Refusing to embrace the best thinking, wherever it originates, and
denying opportunities to sizeable segments of the population results in a
loss for the privileged as well.
Cook illustrates his point with a scene from the 2016 Hollywood movie Hidden Figures . The plot centers on three black women
mathematicians who worked in the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) during the space race of the 1960s between the States
States and the Soviet Union.
In one scene, astronaut John Glenn orders NASA to "have the girl check
the numbers." The "girl" was the African American Katherine Johnson, nicknamed a
"Human Computer" within NASA's Flight Research Division. The
The astronaut, recognizing Johnson's unique ability, was risking his life for her.
by double checking the trajectory of the capsule.
Cook recalls the scene: "This is John Glenn saying, 'I trust you, you're
the one who knows how to do this." He trusts a black woman to
moon over her white male counterparts. "
The conclusion of Cook's research is a wake-up call to integrate not only
diversity of thought, but also diversity of lived experience, to integrate
them not only in the economy, but also in the world beyond. Failure to do so,
suggests, will cost us all.
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