CSMGEP Profiles: Nina Banks

Bringing Women’s Work into the Light

From a young age, Nina Banks understood that she was seeing the effects of economics in the racial inequities she saw in her Pennsylvania hometown.

“I looked around and noticed in my racially segregated town that there were tremendous economic disparities between Black people and white people,” says Banks, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University.

“Nearly all the Black people in my town lived on the quote-unquote ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ and nearly all the Black people were poor or working class and lived in housing projects. And so it really got me to think about economic issues and how to create a better economic society, a more equitable economic society.”

While some people come to racial justice work through the humanities, or perhaps social work or law, Banks knew by middle school that economics offers a window to understanding the systems that fuel inequity — and a path to real change.

“At a really young age, I could appreciate the fact that we needed to have structural changes in place. And so economics seemed like the appropriate route to bring about structural changes in production and work arrangements that would be more equitable,” she says.

By the time she was in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Banks had found a focus on feminist economics, and a friend studying history showed her a book on Black women in American history. One entry that attracted Banks’ notice was on Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first Black person to attain a doctorate degree in economics, in 1921. It was the first time Banks heard the name of the person who would come to dominate her research for years to come. Banks will publish a book of Alexander’s speeches this summer, to be followed by a biography, both via Yale University Press.

Years after first seeing Alexander’s name in a history book, Banks encountered her again while co-teaching a course on African American feminist thought with a political science professor. An anthology they used for the class included an article that Alexander had written for Opportunity magazine in 1930.

“All kinds of light bulbs came on,” Banks recalls, “because what I realized is that in 1930 Sadie Alexander was talking about issues that feminist economists were thinking about in later decades, when I was in graduate school in the 1990s.”

Finally, after reading economist Julianne Malveaux’s article on the loss to the economics profession from not having Alexander within it, Banks decided to conduct archival research in search of Alexander’s economic views. What she found was extensive evidence that Alexander had continued to practice economics in the public realm despite becoming a lawyer. Banks’ discovery led to a determination to restore Alexander’s economic thinking to the economics profession.

Banks found that Alexander was “probably the first” US economist to advocate for a federal job guarantee. She also found that the public speeches Alexander gave from the 1920s through the 1960s provide a detailed view into the economic lives of African Americans in those times.

“She gave speeches throughout the decades that spoke to the pressing issues that African Americans were dealing with throughout that period of time,” Banks says. “So my book of her speeches and writings is not just a book of her economic thought, but it's also an economic history of African Americans.”

The speeches Alexander gave were also remarkable because of who she gave them to: not economists, not even academics, but “ordinary folk,” Banks says.

“One of the things that I love about her speeches is that she was popularizing economic thinking,” Banks says. “She was giving speeches to people who were in religious and civic organizations — the Elks Club, church organizations, synagogues, the YMCA — about these really important issues connected to the economic status of African Americans.”

She did all this while raising children, an angle that piqued Banks’ interest as a feminist economist who has long focused on questions of women and work.

In an article in The Review of Black Political Economy last December, Banks sought to shine light on Black women’s unpaid work in America — not only child care, cooking, and housework, but also through community activism and collective action.

“My research takes it back to the late 19th, early 20th century, where African American women were organizing in response to living in racially segregated environments where city officials were not responsive to the needs of the African American community,” she explains. “So African American women were coming together in small clubs, small gatherings of women, and they were assessing the needs of their community, raising money to fund projects that they thought were needed.”

The article — which garnered a write-up in The New York Times — also documents cases of such work by Mexican American women and Dalit women in India, among others. Recognizing this unpaid work is important, Banks said, to get a full picture of what is being produced and by whom. Quantifying this community work is hard since it has always been unseen and because the market prices that we could assign to it would undervalue the social gains.

“The key difference here,” Banks explains, “is that this work is always in response to disparities. And so the objective is to get a sense not just of this disproportionate amount of work that women are performing, but also to call attention to systemic racial disparities and to change them.” 

Change is something she’s also hoping to accomplish during her term as president of the National Economic Association, an organization founded in 1969 to advance minorities in the economics profession. Much as she’s worked to restore Sadie Alexander’s place in history, Banks is hoping to give the contributions of the NEA and of Black economists the spotlight they deserve in current and future economic thought. That starts with bringing more visibility to the organization and its members, and in making decision-makers aware of it — and its members — as a resource.

“A lot of people aren't aware that there is an association of Black economists, and that Black economists have always been at the forefront of thinking about and challenging racial injustice within the economics profession and economic disparities throughout our society,” she says. “Black economists have always been at the forefront of really thinking about very bold and innovative policy recommendations. So I want to call attention to that because I think that people in the media and perhaps even in the administration aren't aware of that, and aren't looking to this really vital source of knowledge about the economy.”

One hundred years after Sadie T.M. Alexander made history in economics, Banks hopes to pave the way for more Black American voices in the field, and to make sure that the world will never forget their contributions.

Proust Questionnaire
A salon and parlor game of the 19th century made famous by Marcel Proust’s answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things....

What’s on your nightstand?
Ghanaian shea butter, satin sleep cap, sleep mask, and a copy of We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an economist?

What is an ideal day? 
Having all of my extended family together in Louisiana. The kids would spend the day crabbing and later we would all enjoy a blue crab boil on my sister’s patio – with the crabs that we ended up having to buy!

What trait do you deplore in other people? 
Indifference to suffering

What trait do you most admire in people? 

What historical figure do you most admire?
Fannie Lou Hamer

What is your favorite extravagance?
Staying at luxury hotels

What is your worst habit?

Which talent would you most like to have?
Pottery making

Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman? 

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done? 
Raise two children on my own