Stakeholder voices

A Q&A with Darrick Hamilton

Elisabeth JacobsNovember 06, 2020


Darrick Hamilton

Darrick Hamilton is a member of the WorkRise Leadership Board. He is the incoming Henry Cohen professor of economics and urban policy and university professor at The New School (beginning January 2021). Hamilton will also serve as the founding director of the newly created Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification, and Political Economy at The New School.

Hamilton is wrapping up his tenure as executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and professor at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University. Previously, Hamilton was on the faculty of The New School for 15 years.

Hamilton is a pioneer and internationally recognized scholar in the field of stratification economics, which fuses insights from multiple disciplines to challenge and expand orthodox economic interpretation as they relate to identity formation, collective group action, inequality and group based distributions. Hamilton has played an influential role in public policy, serving as a member of the economic committee of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, testifying before the Senate and House Joint Economic Committee, and advising numerous members of Congress. Hamilton has been a vocal proponent and architect of policy proposals aimed at eliminating wealth inequality and other economic disparities between Black, Native, and Latinx Americans and white Americans. He is widely cited and has been published in major media outlets including the New York Times, Politico, The Atlantic, and many others.

In this interview with Elisabeth Jacobs, acting executive director of WorkRise, Hamilton explains identity stratification and how it shapes our society and economy. He also discusses the need for explicitly and intentionally antiracist and antisexist policies as we seek to rebuild the post-COVID-19 economy. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Elisabeth Jacobs: As many have noted, we are in the middle of three monumental crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing economic and employment crisis, and a long overdue awakening to the persistence of structural racism and its consequences. What is this moment so significant and a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an economy focused on equity of opportunity and outcomes?

Darrick Hamilton: I think this moment peels away a scab that has existed for a very long time. What is vividly clear is that you can’t separate economics, politics, and identity stratification from each other. They, in essence, form a three-legged stool that fuel different directions that a society can go. Our past 50 years has been one using race as a strategic mechanism by which we could define deserving and undeserving populations or determine political status for some at the expense of others. Perhaps, now, we are thinking about a society and economy that is more explicitly antiracist, antisexist, and inclusive of broad identities.

The question now is: Which direction are we as a society going to? We have both an institutional apparatus and a society grounded in values based on a history of racism and racial stratification, which leaves us without a possibility of race neutrality. COVID-19 has revealed how unresilient we are to major shocks and disruptions. We are seeing how a country like the United States, which is among the wealthiest in the world, leaves certain populations—particularly Black and Latinx residents—vulnerable to risks of death and economic devastation.

EJ: Can you explain to us what you mean by identity stratification and another concept you have discussed, stratification economics? How have these ideas shaped your work and worldview?

DH: Identity stratification means that we sort ourselves into groups and offer differential treatment based on these groups. That tribalism is about power and how the dominant group is able to structure society to privilege itself at the expense of others. Identity stratification is as old human history and it is integral into our economic systems.

Stratification economics places identity stratification front and center in our understanding of political economy. It’s important to note that the relevance of which groups matter or don’t matter are context specific. Human beings are made up of multiple identities that are not so discrete, and humans can embrace or distance aspects of their identity based on how socially relevant they are. The larger point is that we need to get beyond the notion that racism, sexism, and other -isms are simply irrational, taste-based preferences perpetuated by individuals. They exist because, over time, efficient mechanisms are strategically used in how goods and services are distributed, including power.

EJ: How should we be thinking about race in our economic models and how we understand labor market outcomes?

DH: We need a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which race shows up in our economic models, just like we have a nuanced understanding of politics. You don’t just put in a political variable in a regression framework. The model itself is based on the political framework being examined. Similarly, we need a more nuanced understanding of race and gender and a recognition that these things are strategically related to the investments and outcomes themselves.

EJ: It sounds like you’re asking that we think about race as a mechanism that shapes outcomes and that it needs to be more explicit in the way that we model, theorize, and understand the world. Is that right?

DH: Yeah, I think you’re right. Here’s a good example. In all the things that have taken place over the summer, the most vivid example of white privilege was the Central Park example. [Amy Cooper] weaponized her race in that transactional engagement because she knew or had an expectation that she would have an advantage from it. That is a clear example of how her race offered her a critical advantage. We do that when we engage in transactions. We utilize our resources to get an upper hand, and what’s problematic is people can weaponize their race or gender in order to get an upper hand. If she didn’t do that, I probably would have had empathy for her. I know there are rules about having the dog on a leash, but one could have said, “Why doesn’t [Christian Cooper] just mind his business. Is the dog bothering him?” But it was problematic when she weaponized her race to get an upper hand.

EJ: I think it’s a powerful statement to suggest that people have agency over their identities, in what they will empower or weaponize. Can you say more about that?

DH: There’s choice, but within constraint. For example, my lighter skin complexion offers me access to some of the benefits of whiteness in ways that a darker-skinned Black person wouldn’t have. But there are constraints: there could be some psychological harm associated with me doing that, or by my ethics, to know it’s wrong. These are strategic, not predetermined decisions. These are just the ways in which people choose identity for economic purposes. We can also come up with structures that limit the returns somebody can derive from their gender or race. We should still allow people to express their sense of self, but we should come up with structures that don’t offer it in the marketplace.

If the face of essential workers were different, perhaps we would offer greater protections to them. If the face of mortality were different, perhaps our political economy response would be different. Saying the $600 component of unemployment insurance will discourage work is a built-upon narrative of how we’ve defined who’s deserving and undeserving. It’s the outcome of an economy that emphasizes corporate well-being over workers more broadly.

EJ: I want to pull back the lens of identity stratification even more and ask you to reflect on how you think it impacts economic mobility for workers. How do we take this moment and actually solve for some of those longer-term issues?

DH: In the current way we define the economic value, many progressives and people, generally, would like to believe that economic growth benefits us all, but that’s not necessarily true. When stratification and racism exist to the extent that allows for wages to stay low, it benefits a capitalist class. It leads to a class of workers designated to having suppressed wages and a trade-off in terms of the current way in which we define economic value. If we have a different conception of economic value, then society and the working class both benefit, period.

A system that invests in workers and economic rights in an antiracist and antisexist way will make us more resilient and less vulnerable to the inevitable climate catastrophes or pandemics we will face in the future and economic downturns more broadly.

If we have a structure of government-facilitated economic rights, then the harms of the next catastrophes would be automatically stabilized because that is when public policy kicks in more. And it would have built up a public infrastructure that would make us less vulnerable in terms of public health or physical vulnerability. The private sector is not investing enough in our human and physical infrastructure.

EJ: So how can we interpret what’s happening now, given that we know this pandemic, both on the public health and the economic side, is having a disproportionate impact on communities of color?

DH: Three points come to mind. The first is that it’s not just happenstance or a matter of class that Black, Native, and Latinx people are more economically and physically vulnerable to the pandemic. That distribution happened through a sorting process in which certain identities have been privileged and sanctioned throughout a society. The second point is that certain “subaltern” identities do not have the same rate of return on resources. We have institutions and structures that reward attributes differently based on one’s race, gender, and other forms of identity.

The third point is our political economy response to the pandemic is racialized and gendered. If the face of essential workers were different, perhaps we would offer greater protections to them. If the face of mortality were different, perhaps our political economy response would be different. Saying the $600 component of unemployment insurance will discourage work is a built-upon narrative of how we’ve defined who’s deserving and undeserving. It’s the outcome of an economy that emphasizes corporate well-being over workers more broadly. These images of undeserving welfare queens, deadbeat dads, and super predators has influenced our political economy response.

EJ: What does all that imply about how we should be responding to the crisis? Some of these insurances and supports have expired. You expressed support for Representative Pramila Jayapal’s (D-WA) Paycheck Guarantee Act, which includes a federal job guarantee. Can you say more about why you head in that direction in terms of recommendations?

DH: We have centered our economy and industrial policy on firms and their well-being with the notion that if we have dynamic, productive firms, this prosperity will trickle down to all of us. But this idea has been put into practice at the expense of a worker-focused economy. Having vulnerable workers ultimately benefits firms because they’re able to keep wages down with the threat of unemployment to current workers. Suppressing wages ultimately benefits firms.

And it’s not necessarily either workers or firms, but having this firm-centered mindset allows for things like unemployment insurance to be weaponized. There are larger macroeconomic effects and lessons we have learned from the New Deal. We had growth, infrastructure, and building when there was an emphasis on workers, not firms.

Another component is race. We implemented policies, like the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Wagner Act (also known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935), which, by excluding domestic and agricultural workers, was by design racist: 90 percent of Black women were in that category and more than half of Black men. Today, we could learn the lessons from the past. We can use worker-centered public policy as a mechanism to promote our shared prosperity in a way that’s explicitly antiracist and inclusive by design and implementation.

EJ: In today’s context, if we’re talking about solving a problem through public policy, and that problem has a differential distribution across race, how do we do it in an antiracist way?

DH: In order to have policy, you need narrative and you need design. These two are iterative, related and reinforce each other. Right now, we’re in a moment where we’re being explicit about racial injustice, and that can better able us to design policy that is racially just. If we don’t talk about race, then we can’t get policy that’s racially inclusive. Race-specific policy is the most direct way to redress our racist past. We can have policies that are racial justice oriented, but to do so, we have to be really careful and intentional and understand there are also risks involved.

I’ll give you an example. Opportunity Zone policies attempt to incentivize investments in underinvested neighborhoods with things like tax incentives or tax breaks. But, they potentially have the unintended consequence of hastening gentrification and even exploit and extrapolate from neighborhoods. To me, that’s a poorly designed feature trying to address race, so you have to be careful. If we ever want to redress our racist past, we will need race-specific policies but be conscious it isn’t done in a way that enhances inequality.

EJ: I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on the policy responses to the last recession. What did we do last time? Did it work? Why did it land us where we were?

DH: Sadly, from a political perspective, the [Obama] administration almost bent over backwards to avoid appearing racialized. I guess we did not go into a depression because there was a huge public intervention, which was the good thing. The manner in which that intervention was distributed could have avoided the oxymoron of a jobless recovery and growing inequality if it had focused more on working class individuals in an antiracist, antisexist way. Physical intervention should be distributed in a worker-centric, antiracist, and antisexist way. Our goal this time should be a recovery where we can achieve more equitable, shared prosperity.