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Patrick Mason Joins PERI

PERI is most pleased to welcome the eminent economist Professor Patrick Mason as the newest member of our PERI staff and as a senior UMass Economics faculty member.  Mason’s main areas of research include the economics of race, racial stratification, and inequality.  He has previously held faculty positions at University of California-Riverside, Wayne State, Notre Dame, and Florida State.  Mason discusses his background and current research projects in this interview with C.J. Polychroniou. In the interview, Mason observes that “we have an economy constructed on chattel capitalism (slavery, the slave trade, triangular trade), servitude capitalism (Jim Crow), and racialized managerial capitalism (modern economy).”


Patrick Mason

This is part of PERI's economist interview series, hosted by C.J. Polychroniou.
Read Mason's bio


C.J. Polychroniou
You are an economist specializing in racial inequality, income distribution and stratification, unemployment, and economics of identity. Tell us a bit about your background and what drew your interest in economics.

Patrick Mason: My interest in economics is directly related to the political economy of my childhood community. Jim Crow ended in Florida in 1970; I was 12 years old. Nearly all of the older boys and adult males in my community worked in agriculture (picking oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelons) and most of the older girls and adult women worked as domestics or semi-domestics. For example, one of my mother’s early jobs was “Elevator Girl.” She was about 25 years old when she started, married, and had given birth to 4 children. But her job title was “Elevator Girl.” She was acutely aware that she made less money than men with similar jobs and, being my mother’s son, she made sure that I, too, was aware of the pay disparity, unjust treatment, and insulting title. (She worked in a seasonal hotel owned by a group of people who called themselves Christians).

During the summer, many of the males in my neighborhood migrated to other states to do agricultural work. Prior to desegregation, there was one black high school for 2 or 3 counties. No Black person lived on the White side of the tracks and few White people lived on the Black side of the tracks. Literally, a railroad track was the racial boundary. I say “few” because Hillcrest was a White community more or less surrounded by the Black community. The families in Hillcrest were even poorer than the families in the Black community and most of the folk in our community lived far below the poverty level. The White people in Hillcrest were so poor we didn’t consider them White. If they walked home through the Black community, no one would fight them. My family was part of the Black “middle class,” that is, our income was a couple of hundred dollars above the official poverty level and both of my parents were high school graduates. For perspective, we thought middle class White people were rich. My community was a world of rigid racial and economic segregation and accompanying economic exploitation and political oppression.

Also, I grew up in church and keenly observed the socioeconomic differences of the Black church community. The Baptists and Methodists in our neighborhood were the better educated (at least one family member had a high school diploma) and more affluent, while the Pentacostals and Apostolics had lesser educated and lower income.

My biological grandfather had only a 1st grade education. He was smart enough to marry my paternal grandmother, who taught 1st grade to children and night school to adults. She had a powerful intellect, was a leader in our Baptist church, and was a wonderful and caring human being. Teaching was her calling from God, her way to fight racial inequality and injustice.

From 1st through 4th grade, I attended an all-Black school, and I was always the top student in my class. I was always considered one of the smartest boys in church. My father assured me that my brothers and I were tied for 2nd smartest persons in the world. My closest friends, too, assured me that I was brilliant. So, I was astonished when I went to the White school, and they didn’t want me to be in the top group. I thought they were confused. I was raised with the mentality of a primo uomo; it never occurred to me that anybody would see me as something other than number one. It certainly never occurred to me that racism should cause me to have low self-esteem or believe that White students were smarter than me. It’s a long story, but in 1968 at 10 years of age and in 5th grade I was kicked out of the White school. The principal and my teacher thought I was problem; I thought something was wrong with them.

All of these events led me to be greatly influenced by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In college, I studied economics because it allowed me to make sense of Florida. Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value and exploitation explained the political economy of my community.

: You left Florida State University (FSU), where you held the positions of professor of economics and associate dean for diversity, equity and social inclusion for the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, to join the Department of Economics and the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. What made you decide to leave FSU for UMass Amherst?

PM: I interviewed via Zoom and was online for nearly the whole day. It felt like five minutes. I had a lot of fun talking with the faculty members. I know this department, its faculty, its history, and many of my friends are alumni. I have deep family roots in Tallahassee, but I’m part of the norm at UMass Amherst versus being an outlier at FSU.


CJP: There has always been substantial racial (and gender) inequality in the U.S. economy, and the problem still persists. What is the main cause for this inequality?

PM: I’d like to say, “Read my book, The Economics of Structural Racism, Cambridge University Press.” Regrettably, it won’t be out until late 2022 or early 2023. Admittedly, that’s a shamelessly crass commercial announcement.

We have an economy constructed on chattel capitalism (slavery, the slave trade, triangular trade), servitude capitalism (Jim Crow), and racialized managerial capitalism (modern economy). Each of these regimes created massive racial wealth disparities, racialized economic agents (managers, workers, and civic leaders), and insecurity for working class people (recessions, depressions, differential access to employment wages for jobs requiring similar skills). Throughout the development of each of these capitalisms, racial identities have been strategies for gaining access to (or excluding access to) resources. We will have problems with racism as long as we have massive racial disparities in wealth, involuntary joblessness, and racial differences in compensation for jobs requiring similar productive characteristics.

: Neoclassical economics sees racial disparities as the result of social capital deficits. What’s wrong with this view, and why is it that many Americans seem oblivious to that fact that racial economy inequality is a foundational feature of the United States?

PM: Right. Except it’s not just social capital deficits. It’s alleged deficits in social capital, family values, individual behavior, and group “culture.” Every time a popular neoclassical explanation is shown to be empirically false (and all are false), some neoclassical economist comes out with a “new” source of Black inferiority. The individualist (neoclassical) perspective on racial disparity tends to focus on finding the African American deficit that can explain racial inequality and tends to shy away from a serious analysis of racism or thoughtful analysis of why racial discrimination will persist within competitive markets. Another approach of individualist economics is to find some incredible information problem and use this information problem to explain statistical discrimination. Besides the fact that the racial aspect of the information problem is usually not credible, statistical information isn’t really persistent racism. Empirically oriented individualist economists have increasingly sought to measure discrimination via field experiments or the use of quantitative data on automatic associations (aka “implicit bias”). I have great appreciation for the efforts of empirical economists who employ this approach.

CJP: According to many studies, including your own, economic progress for black Americans has stalled since the Civil Rights era. What’s the explanation for this disturbing development, especially since African Americans today are much better educated than they were in the 1960s?

PM: The short answer is that the recessions of 1973 – 1975 and 1981 – 1982, the attack on unions, the federal retreat from anti-discrimination enforcement, the change in monetary policy from fighting unemployment to fighting inflation, the impoverishment of fiscal policy as a tool for fighting inequality and unemployment, and the declining of manufacturing combined to reduce the bargaining power of workers relative to capital and to reduce the bargaining power of Black workers relative to White workers. In this environment, both general and racial inequality increased: productivity increases, wages remained flat, and Black workers lost ground relative to White workers – especially outside of the South.

Individualist economics has long perpetuated the myth that individual compensation is proportional to individual productivity and (perfect) competition ensures that this proportion is more or less the same for all individuals. If so, individual differences in earnings are explained by individual differences in productivity. From this perspective, groups are just collections of individuals; hence, racial, gender, nativity, sexual orientation, and religious group differences in labor market outcomes are caused by group differences in productive attributes.

This is conservative ideology masquerading as science. The first problem with this perspective is that it fails to understand that economic agents have social identities, and these identities influence the economic strategies of agents, for example, worker-manager racial identity matches can influence productivity of individuals and groups. This leads to the second problem with the individualist perspective: individual productivity is not a fixed attribute of persons, but it also depends on the competitive characteristics of the organization, managerial strategies to control the labor process, and the goals of the employing organization. Third, labor market outcomes depend on bargaining power.

From the end of World War II to about the 1973 – 1975 recession, mean wages and productivity grew about at about the same rate and racial inequality was declining – not sufficiently and not rapidly, but declining. Wilson J. Wilson was so impressed by the progress of 1965 – 1973, he wrote the highly influenced book The Declining Significance of Race. Observing the same progress, Richard Freeman published a paper speaking of “the collapse in labor market discrimination.” Neither Wilson nor Freeman is a conservative; both are decent people and exceptional scholars who care deeply about eliminating injustice. Both scholars made linear projections; they assumed that competition would ensure that as African Americans continued to close the racial gap in skills (perfect) competition will cause a decline in the racial wage gap.

Wilson, Freeman, and a host of other scholars ignored economic history. During The Nadir, that is, during four decades of servitude capitalism (1877 – 1914), the racial skills gap declined dramatically with little effect on racial inequality in labor market outcomes. There is something else that must be noted by this period: racial violence, increased incarceration, and increasingly reactionary local governments were the White reactions to increasingly effective political economic competition from African Americans. White supremacists of that era appealed to Social Darwinism to attack immigrants (Irish, Jews, Southern and Eastern Europeans, East Asians, Arabs/Muslims, and “homosexuals”) and to explain away racial inequality. Francis Amasa Walker, famous statistician, founder and 1st president of the American Economic Association, and President of MIT, is credited with developing “the disappearance hypothesis,” the idea that African Americans were so genetically deficient and so thoroughly unable to compete without being controlled by Whites that they would die out within a few generations after slavery. Clearly, The Nadir has a lot to teach us regarding 1973 – present.


CJP: What sort of interventions are needed to eliminate racial disparities in economic well-being?

PM: We need a massive redistribution of wealth, both between and within racial groups. We need a guaranteed employment program. We need to make it easier for workers to organize into progressive unions and work organizations. We need strong penalties for firms who engage in discrimination against protected groups. We need free public education through at least 4 years of college. We need to end mass incarceration.


CJP: What research projects do you currently have underway, or plan to embark on in the near future?

PM: I am always working on multiple projects. I have two manuscripts that are more than 50% complete: Economics of the Caribbean and How We Got Over: The Rollins Family, From Enslavement to 21st Century Urban Professionals. The first manuscript grew out of my course on Caribbean political economy. There is no text for this course, so over the years I have developed my own text. The second manuscript started as a genealogy of my maternal family, though it has now grown far beyond a genealogy. It’s really a study of the political economy of intergenerational mobility for African American family.

I have also papers in various stages of development, including “Educational attainment and parental wealth,” “Chinese Import Penetration and US Labor Market Adjustments,” “Labor Market Effects of Macroeconomic Policy,” and “Stratification Economics.” Some of these papers are co-authored.


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