In 2018, getting political consensus on what’s best for the future of America can be a bit like cheering for Duke and Carolina at the same time. But Duke professor William “Sandy” Darity Jr. has managed to do just that; somehow, he’s found common ground in U.S. politics. His idea for a federal job guarantee to provide full-time work for any American seeking and unable to obtain satisfactory employment is seeing support from both sides of the aisle.
In fact, nearly all of the Democratic hopefuls for the 2020 presidential bid have been in contact with Darity’s team. This includes officials from the offices of senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley. Republican Kevin Hassett, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, has also expressed support for the idea. In Cory Booker’s case, he’s even designed and put forth a pilot program with help from Darity.
At Duke, Darity’s job is to direct its Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, an interdisciplinary research engine tackling a host of inequality issues. “The Cook Center’s mission is to do systematic and rigorous research about policy issues, and then be able to effectively communicate that to the largest community that we can reach,” says Darity.
Recently, its work has seen increased reach with every new report published. In 2017, Politico Magazine selected Darity and his former graduate student and now frequent collaborator, Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at The New School, as a duo on its top 50 “thinkers, doers and visionaries transforming American politics.”
Astoundingly, the federal jobs guarantee is just one of the big ideas that Darity is pushing forward with the Cook Center. He and his colleagues have been prolific in launching solutions to inequality, any one of which could cause a tectonic shift in the socioeconomic fabric of America.
How Darity Came to Define a New Sub-Field of Economics
In 1970, Sandy Darity is an incoming freshman at Brown University. Two years before he gets there, the Poor People’s Campaign, a part of the civil rights movement, has a radical idea. Led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, their idea is to secure a Second Bill of Rights. It’s a set of values guaranteed by law that will help all Americans achieve economic freedom in their pursuit of happiness.
And, as it turns out, the idea isn’t altogether new.
It’s an idea that Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first black recipient of a Ph.D. in economics, worked on with President Harry Truman for his construction of the Fair Deal in 1949. An idea, before that, that served as the opening plank of President Franklin Roosevelt’s proposed Second or Economic Bill of Rights, announced in his State of the Union address in 1944. An idea so All-American that it takes Darity with such force – like it did King and his wife Coretta Scott – that it quietly consumes Darity’s scholarly efforts for the next five decades.For a time, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander worked at North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, N.C. Photo by Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
In his studies at Brown, Darity is exposed to the theory of human capital. It defines a person’s economic value as the sum total of the attributes that affect that person’s ability to perform labor – including their health, education and even creativity.
But Darity’s life experiences reveal gaps in this theory: Summers visiting his grandmother’s family in Wilson, North Carolina, where the railroad tracks divided the city like a spine into two neighborhoods on racial lines. Years spent abroad in the Middle East, when his father worked for the World Health Organization, where the Egyptian beaches looked different based on the income of the communities who had access to them. These memories define his early efforts to understand economics in the context of an unforgiving world.
Darity graduates from Brown with this conflict of theory and actuality in his head the same year that Hank Aaron calmly breaks Babe Ruth’s Major League Baseball home run record under pressure and threat of violence. (The two are to meet decades later, connected through their joint charge for human rights at the Cook Center.) For graduate school, Darity goes on to study at MIT, the world’s preeminent graduate program in economics. He’s part of a group that pushes the department to its highest representation of black American graduate students, which hasn’t been surpassed to this day.
He completes his Ph.D. in only three years, in 1978, the year that the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act is codified into law by President Jimmy Carter. It calls on the same core principles as the Works Progress Administration to provide employment to Americans during times of recession or economic downturn. However, it is never implemented, remaining an “unfunded mandate” in Capitol Hill jargon.
After a few years teaching, Darity finds a long-term home in the economics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where his father, William “Bill” Darity Sr, was the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from its school of global public health. But it’s not until two decades later, when Darity begins to also teach at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, that he’s struck by something so profound it reshapes his entire career.
“I don’t know to what extent the big idea crystallizes,” says Darity, “but I’ve long thought we needed to have some sort of structure to try to offset the deep economic disadvantages that are associated with which family you’re born into.”
For the first time, Darity finds the work he is doing as a principal investigator connects back to the real world. He is no longer an academic at a distance from society but a civically engaged citizen. He uses this new level of articulation and implementation at Duke to propel his social-science theories into research-based policies.
The outcome is a body of work that springs forth brilliantly: policy ideas for things like baby bonds, reparations and a job guarantee. Academic ideas that are distilled just enough to affect America in a big way. It all culminates in a talk that Darity gives at the Academy of Economics & Finance’s annual meeting. In it, he gives birth to the new sub-field of economics called stratification economics. This field recognizes that economic disparities between people, groups and regions are thickly related to structures of social hierarchy.
Simultaneously, as the evidence of the scale and scope of inequity mounts globally, there’s an explosion of worldwide interest. For a while, it seems, all eyes and attention are drawn to this challenge. The moment becomes somewhat of a zeitgeist of the early 2000s, taking hold of fringe and pop culture in the form of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, whose slogan is now the ubiquitous, “We are the 99%.” Further driving the issue, French economist Thomas Piketty publishes the doorstop New York Times bestseller, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which outlines the vast and widespread wealth and income inequalities that have existed in the U.S. and Europe since 1700.
“When you get very pessimistic analyses of how things look today, people say, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’” says Darity. “Now, I’ve got some answers.”
This is the magic hour he’s been waiting for, where the policy, political climate and the public seem to align in total eclipse, so that only the research might shine through. Here, Darity sees his catalyst.
In 2014, he proposes to Duke leadership that fully dedicating Duke resources to solving issues of inequality will have a fundamental impact on this global challenge. As a result, he’s selected to lead an initiative called the Duke Consortium on Social Equity. In a year’s time, the initiative evolves into a center named in honor of Samuel DuBois Cook, Duke’s first tenured African American professor.
It’s a name that has dual significance to Darity, who holds a distinguished professorship at Duke in honor of Cook’s abiding commitment to advance equal rights.
Impact at the Cook Center Today
Today, the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity is an interdisciplinary research center fully vested in the study of the causes and consequences of inequality – in order to provide solutions for its adverse effects. Its researchers take a cross-national comparative approach to the study of human difference and disparity, exploring social problems associated with gender, race, ethnicity and religious affiliation, among others.
In one of its core research projects, primary investigators at the Cook Center administered their own quantitative survey, the National Asset Scorecard for Communities of Color, in six different cities in the U.S. This overlapped with in-depth interviews with people the Cook Center identified as middle-class black households in Boston.“The Color of Wealth in Boston” contains summaries of the Cook Center’s National Asset Scorecard for Communities of Color survey in Boston.
As a result, its joint publication with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and The New School shows that the median level of wealth for white households in Boston is $247,500. For U.S. black households in Boston, it’s $8. Reports from the other five cities contain figures that paint a similar picture: “Wealth is virtually nonexistent in Black America, regardless of an individual’s occupational level, income or education,” says Darity.
Compelling research like this that’s happening at the Cook Center is not confined by national borders, or even to a particular area of social equity. One project commissioned by the Asset Funders Network looks to examine women’s participation in small business ownership. Another is the health equity work of Keisha Bentley-Edwards, an associate director of research at the center, which has resulted in a budding partnership with Renmin University in Beijing, China, a country whose health system challenges vastly differ from those in America. Darity himself has been working with the Indian Institute for Dalit Studies and the Indian Economic Association to better understand the economics of caste and religious inequality in India.
In each instance, the Duke difference is serving as a convener of knowledge on social equity. The hope being that the expansion and identification of additional types of economic disparity and data will result in better analysis, better understanding and better policy for all.
For programming, the Cook Center aims to engage communities and scholars on all levels. A recent highlight has been the Hank & Billye Suber Aaron Young Scholars Summer Research Institute, named in honor of the Aarons, which facilitates a three-week summer program for middle and high school students in Durham Public Schools.
Beyond the continued push for a job guarantee, the horizon at the Cook Center seems endless. Among the growing list of research is the civic wealth project, first developed for a Cook Center brief by political scientists Jamila Michener, Avi Green and Shauna Shames. It’s essentially a fascinating translation of Darity’s work on monetary wealth applied to political participation.
“The basic idea is that you can think about political participation as being a consequence of people’s civic assets and liabilities,” says Darity. “And so you would want to construct a measure of net civic worth, in some sense, that would take into account both the assets and liabilities that enable people to participate fully in the political process.”
At inception, the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity found instrumental financial backing in the form of seed funding from the university, along with robust support from the dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and Duke’s provost. Today, a number of different organizations, foundations and individual donors provide the funding needed to fuel the Cook Center’s research. An example is the National Science Foundation’s support for the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics, which aims to help junior economics faculty from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups make the transition to tenured professorships.
“Along with funding we get internally from the university, we have a number of programmatic grants,” says Gwendolyn Wright, the Cook Center’s director of strategic initiatives and collaborations. “Our donors include organizations like JP Morgan Chase, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and certainly the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”
But as NIH funding continues to decline, and with industry less willing to support projects without an immediate or guaranteed return on investment, philanthropic support is needed now more than ever.
With your continued support, the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity can help Duke continue to conduct cutting-edge research in the social sciences, train the next generation of scholars and help Duke complete its enduring mission of knowledge in the service of society.