What we know and what we can prove are often quite separate, as any good scientist or lawyer will testify. Understanding that, Samuel L. Myers, Jr., has spent his career as both an academic and an advocate bridging that particular chasm, applying econometric techniques to first study areas like law enforcement, housing, government aid and food availability and then to conclusively demonstrate to policymakers the inequalities that have dogged minorities and the poor.
Recognizing Myers’s contributions, the Urban Affairs Association (UAA) and SAGE Publishing will present him with the Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award later this month at the UAA’s annual meeting. The award’s nominating committee unanimously selected Myers, who directs the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the University of Minnesota, based on how his “trajectory and breadth of work brings to light the real material conditions of racial income inequality…. We appreciated especially his political economic analyses that reveal, challenge and inform the discursive battles shaping policy that produce racial income inequality.”
The co-author or co-editor of several books on these topics, including Persistent Disparity and The Economics of Race and Crime, Myers explains in the interview below that he doesn’t see himself as much as the changemaker as he does the person empowering and arming those who will act to create change. This requires giving them the skills and the analysis they need to convince the reluctant. He offered an example on the Open Democracy website, “If human rights activists want to make a stronger case for remedying racial violence, they must advocate for stronger reporting and documentation by every police department and law enforcement agency in the nation.”
The award is named for Marilyn Jacobs Gittell, a scholar and community urban activist who wrote seminal works on citizen participation and was herself an impassioned participant in one of the most controversial social experiments of her time, the decentralization of New York City’s schools. Gittell was the founding editor of Urban Affairs Quarterly (now known as Urban Affairs Review), which was the first journal published by SAGE. Honorees are urban scholars who have engaged in field-based research that incorporates direct engagement with local residents and organizations in the area where the Urban Affairs Association conference is being held. The formal presentation of this award will take place on April 21 in Minneapolis.
What was the first time as an academic that you felt you officially affixed an advocate’s hat on your head? (Or perhaps I have the order wrong. If so, when as an advocate did you first set sights on an academic career?)
I do not consider myself an advocate in the traditional sense. I see myself as someone empowering advocates and providing them with the tools and skills they need to be effective.
My first big advocacy/research project in the Twin Cities with a broad and far-reaching impact was a report the Wilkins Center did on behalf of the Minneapolis Urban League concerning food prices. Local leaders were concerned about the pending relocation of a chain supermarket. Church members submitted their grocery receipts from this large chain to prove to the chain that the inner city was a viable market. At first, the Urban League asked me to analyze the grocery receipts to make the case on their behalf. I responded that it was not obvious that collecting these receipts answered the question that the community members wanted answered: what is best for the community? If prices were higher in the inner city than in the suburbs, was it in the best interest of the community to literally beg the food store to remain? From there, our research team was able to design a study that asked and answered the question of whether the poor pay more. We found that the food quality was lower and the food prices higher in the neighborhoods where low-income African Americans lived versus in the suburbs. This report helped the Urban League change its strategy and also resulted in one of my most frequently cited publications in an academic journal.
So, what got me started was a community-initiated policy question that could be answered using the tools and skills of economics.
You’ve done a fair amount of work in China. What has that taught you about inequality in both the United States and in China?
China is the second largest economy in the world. One thing that is unfortunate is that the Chinese understanding of race and of racial minority groups in the United States is very much tainted by 19th century and early 20th century European views of biological or genetic determinants of inferiority. The TV shows regularly shown on state-operated TV stations portray blacks as inferior. Many educated Chinese inexplicably hold racist views without even knowing that these views are racist. As one of the papers in the special edition of The Review of Black Political Economy on race and China that I edited reveals, anti-black hostility runs very deep in China and has the potential for creating significant problems for African Americans as China grows in its dominance in the global economy.
A lot of your work on inequality has looked at race, but you also look at disabilities. Are those efforts roughly similar, or do each require an entirely new set of skills and networks?
I am deaf. I was born deaf. My mother was deaf. Her father was deaf. My older daughter is deaf. But, until I began to do research on disability in China, I steered clear of disability research for two reasons: my experience of racial discrimination within the deaf community and the fact that relatively few of the top economic researchers on disability ever explore the intersection between race and disability.
I was an accidental analyst of disability in China. The British leaders of the Handicap International had been expelled from Tibet and were housed in an antiquated building in Beijing. Someone got word to them that there was an American economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Science on a Fulbright fellowship and they invited me to speak. I decided to talk about what I knew about and that is the household incomes by ethnicity. From there I addressed the question of whether minorities with disabilities had lower incomes than non-minorities (Han) with disabilities. This work expanded a few years later to compare disability policies in the USA and in China. It is too long a story to tell, but believe me it was a surprise to learn that there are quotas for hiring people with disabilities in China and this actually has the beneficial impact of improving the lives of minorities in China.
You are the Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at Wilkin’s alma mater, the University of Minnesota. If there could only be one thing that modern activists could yet learn from Roy Wilkins, what would that be?
That he was the night editor of the Minnesota Daily and used his position with the newspaper to open doors for other students of color and to advocate for journalism that “speaks truth to power.”
Speaking of another great civil rights figure, you are a ‘junior.’ Your dad is an economist, too, but I’d argue he’s better known for his work to support higher education for all. What did you learn from you father about being a scholar and an activist?
For most of my life when i was invited to speak at major community events, people would walk up to me and say, “Dr. Myers, you look so young. We expected a much older man” — and, of course they expected my father. I think reading my father’s 1942 master’s thesis at Boston University on Negro cooperatives open my eyes to how it was never possible to completely divorce your role as an academic from your role as a community member when you are an African American. I hope that the lesson that I learned was that there is no inherent contradiction between doing quality scholarship while also addressing core concerns of the community of color.
What advice do you have for a young scholar-activist who wants to follow in your steps, or those of Marilyn Gittell, Roy Wilkins or your father?
The advice that I would give to a young scholar-activist is to work hard to gain the credentials and the recognition of the scholarly community first and then branch out to make your work relevant to your activist passions. There is always the risk of rushing to activism and then not being seen as legitimate within the academic world. I have been lucky because the community around me has given me support and encouragement while I was trying my hardest to establish myself as a legitimate scholar. The community was patient and valued the fact that once I got tenure I could do the real work to help redress the inequalities we face.
Interested in the methods side of Myers’ career? Click here for more Q&A.