CSMGEP Profiles: Bernard E. Anderson, University of Pennsylvania

The Promise of America

Bernard E. Anderson, Whitney M. Young, Jr. Professor Emeritus, the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Bernard E. AndersonBernard E. Anderson was in the audience on June 4, 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address for Howard University. In his speech, Johnson spoke of racial injustice and the economic disparities between blacks and whites. “You do not,” he said, “take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

Growing up in an area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that W.E.B. DuBois had studied for his classic work,The Philadelphia Negro (1895), Anderson saw first-hand the unfairness that Johnson spoke about. He noticed the disparity in the amount of money that black and white people had to spend, and how they spent it. He was troubled by the differences in the quality of housing in local and more affluent neighborhoods. As a college freshman, he decided to major in economics so that he could explore racial inequality in economic life and related issues.

Anderson’s diverse professional career began in academia. His undergraduate economics professor at Livingstone College had studied at Harvard under Professor John D. Black, who also taught President Barack Obama’s father. At Michigan State University, his major graduate professor and advisor was Dr. Andrew F. Brimmer, who became his mentor in the profession. Anderson also studied under some leading institutional labor economists, including George W. Taylor, Jack Steiber, Herbert R. Northrup, and Charles Killingsworth.

After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, Anderson joined the faculty at the Wharton School, rising through the ranks to become Wharton’s first African American tenured professor. In addition to his academic work, Anderson looked for ways to address employment and economic development issues outside of academia. “As an economist,” he said, “I have always had an interest in influencing public policy. I have made an effort to get out of the ivory tower and off the campus.” In 1993 he was appointed by President William J. Clinton as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment Standards Administration. In this job, which Anderson calls “the high point” of his career, he implemented policies that created 23 million new jobs, reducing black youth unemployment to the lowest level in 25 years.

Anderson has belonged to numerous boards and organizations “off campus,” including  America’s first mutual insurance company, the Rockefeller Foundation, the United Bank of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania’s only African-American bank), the Philadelphia Urban League, the Franklin Institute, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name just a few. The author of six books, Anderson also has written several scholarly and popular publications on labor markets, economic performance, and community economic revitalization. He has received six honorary degrees and many awards.

Throughout his career, Anderson has energetically supported young people in the economics profession. At the University of Pennsylvania, where he was appointed Whitney M. Young, Jr. Professor of Management at the Wharton School, he mentored dozens of African American economics and business students. As a program director of the Rockefeller Foundation, he recommended, and the board of trustees approved, the first foundation support of the AEA summer program, which helps talented minority undergraduate students learn skills and conduct research in economics in preparation for studies at the doctoral level. The program was led by Marcus Alexis (he and Anderson were two of the seven founders of the Caucus of Black Economists in 1969). The grant was substantial and supported the summer program for three years.

Anderson encourages young minority economists to excel in economic studies; to choose an area of vital interest and make it their own: “Strive to be the best in that field; offer new insights, and don’t get caught up in methodological trivia. Strive for diversity in professional experience; take advantage of growth opportunities outside academia. But always move upward, never sideward, or backwards. Most importantly, define yourself; don’t let others define you.”

In a speech he gave at Howard University in 2013, nearly 50 years after President Johnson’s famous speech at that same school, Anderson noted that ever since the Emancipation Proclamation, “African Americans and their allies have worked long and hard to gain economic security for black people, and to eliminate racial inequality . . . [however,] their efforts have met with limited success.” Anderson described economic policies that he believed “would strengthen the economy, increase GDP, improve income distribution, and contribute to stable, balanced growth.” These include the achievement of full employment; encouraging the participation of African Americans in all sectors of the American economy; and targeting federal investment to people and communities in greatest need. These policies “would benefit all Americans, while eliminating racial disparities in economic life.”

In a resounding conclusion to his speech, Anderson affirmed that “where there’s a will, there’s a way. . . . We know where we need to go; that is to eliminate racial inequality. We need to make the practice of America equal to the promise of America.”