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Armed with a Ph.D. in economics from MIT, Julianne Malveaux talks about her new book “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.”

Kam Williams
Armed with a Ph.D. in economics from MIT, Julianne Malveaux talks about her new book “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.”

Armed with a Ph.D. in economics from MIT, Julianne Malveaux talks about her new book “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.”

Julianne Malveaux is the 15th president of Bennett College for Women. Recognized for her progressive and insightful observations, she has been described by Cornel West as “the most iconoclastic public intellectual in the country.”

Malveaux’s insights on issues such as race, culture, gender and their economic impacts are helping to shape and thus impact the mindset of 21st century America. Always in demand in this capacity as a sage television commentator, Malveaux appears regularly on CNN, BET, PBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, C-SPAN and other networks.

Furthermore, she is an accomplished author and editor whose academic work has been widely published in a variety of anthologies and journals. She served as editor of “Voices of Vision: African American Women on the Issues” (1996); as the co-editor of “Slipping through the Cracks: The Status of Black Women” (1986); and as co-editor of “The Paradox of Loyalty: An African American Response to the War on Terrorism (2002).”

She is the author of two column anthologies: “Sex, Lies, and Stereotypes: Perspectives of a Mad Economist” (1994); and “Wall Street, Main Street, and the Side Street: A Mad Economist Takes a Stroll” (1999). And she is the co-author of “Unfinished Business: A Democrat and A Republican Take on the 10 Most Important Issues Women Face” (2002).

A native of San Francisco, Malveaux’s credentials include a bachelor’s degree from Boston College and a Ph.D. in Economics from MIT. A committed activist and civic leader, she has held positions in numerous women’s, civil rights and policy organizations. For example, she was president of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs from 1995-1999, and is now the honorary co-chair of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Malveaux now serves on the boards of the Economic Policy Institute, The Recreation Wish List Committee of Washington, D.C., and the Liberian Education Trust. Here, she talks about her career and about her new book “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.”

What interested you in writing this book?

I was inspired by the fact that so much African American history is not common knowledge or just unrecorded. And that’s especially true of black economic history. This isn’t stuff I learned while studying economics in college, but facts I read and collected along the way. They sort of stayed with my spirit and I decided I had to put this together.

Were you in Boston the same time I was? I was there from ‘75 to ‘78.  

I was in Boston from 1970 to 1977. I was in Boston College’s Class of ’74 and then I went on to earn my Ph.D. from MIT.

The reason I asked is because I’m from New York, so Boston was a big culture shock for me. I never experienced such racism before or since. Being from San Francisco, it must have been a hard adjustment for you, too.

Yes, it was. The racism there is really virulent. When I arrived in Boston in September of 1970, I loaded my luggage into a rental car at Logan Airport and began driving to school. But I made a wrong turn on my way, and ended up in South Boston. Coming from the Bay Area, where we’re real friendly, I thought nothing of innocently stopping at a candy store to ask for directions. I went in with my big afro and a big smile and said sweetly, “Hi! My name is Julianne Malveaux, and I’m about to start as a freshman at Boston College. I’m lost. Can you point me in the right direction?” All I got in response was the N-word. I said, “There’s no cause to go there” and they just said it again. So, I went to the bar next-door, where I was met with alcohol-fueled racism. There, they said, “We don’t allow [N-word] around here. We’re going to call the cops.” Two police officers showed up very quickly, and asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood. Their tone was so stern with me that you would have though I’d broken a law. After I burst into tears, they offered to lead me to Commonwealth Avenue. But before letting me drive off, one got out of the patrol car, knocked on my window and warned, “If I ever catch you in South Boston again, I’ll arrest you.” It was just a horrible place. I remember that brother that they ran the flagpole through.

You mean Attorney Ted Landsmark. He and I were friends in Boston back then. He was just walking into City Hall when he coincidentally encountered an anti-busing demonstration. Seeing a black man they could take their frustrations out on, the white mob attacked and one guy broke his nose with an American flag. What made it seem surreal was that this was ‘76, the Bicentennial year, and the photo capturing the moment Ted was struck by the flag won the Pulitzer Prize.

That was just awful. Boston was horrible. It really was a toxic situation.

How have your days as an MIT trained economist aided in your daily work of being a college president?

Wow! That’s a great question. First of all, being an economist makes you think of resource allocation which is historically-black colleges’ biggest issue. How to use resources most efficiently and effectively. I also think that had I not been an economist, some of the financial restructuring I’ve done would not have happened. When I arrived, the college was encumbered with debt disproportionate to the lien that was on the institution. We were able to renegotiate that and then create some equity in order to be able to borrow the money needed to build the first new buildings on campus in 28 years. Thanks to my training, I was able to assess the problem and probe it in that way. I call that my crowning accomplishment.  

Your book chronicles past black economic achievement. Where do you envision economic opportunities for African Americans in the future?

Number one, in the developing world, especially on the African continent, if we take the time to develop those relationships. Secondly, I think the whole environmental justice issue raises entrepreneurial possibilities in terms of how to be more “green.” I think there are more opportunities in education and I hope, quite frankly, that African Americans will be among those creating economic opportunities around the growing issue of senior care.

What special barriers do you see that prevent black people from attaining economic parity? Do you see any strategies to overcome these barriers?

We can continue to close the income gap. But we will never achieve economic parity from a wealth perspective because, once upon a time, we were somebody’s wealth. That wealth gap won’t be closed unless it becomes a policy priority to redistribute wealth.

Do you think middle-class African Americans have been more adversely impacted by the recession than other Americans?

They have certainly been severely impacted, although they’re relatively advantaged in comparison to their working-class and poor cousins who’ve never even had the opportunity to accrue student debt. That being said, my advice to them is to regroup, although that is easier said than done. If you’ve gotten in over your head, then you have to figure out how to get out from under. Yes, the job market is tight, but there are still jobs out there. Don’t let what’s happening to you, economically, affect your game face when you’ve got to look for a job. And if the job market has not been kind to you, then you might need to figure out what you can do besides work for someone else.

What is your opinion of Obama’s proposed extension of the Bush tax cuts?  

I’m also opposed to that. President Obama’s apparently compromising because he feels caught between a rock and a hard place. But extending the Bush tax cuts is bad news.  

Are you as disappointed in Obama as Cornel West seems to be?

Yes and no. Me and Cornel get in trouble about that all the time. Let me say this. If you look at brother Obama’s, President Obama’s track record before he entered the White House, you could not have reasonably expected him to be a progressive. He never said he was one. Go back and listen to his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention where he talked about there being no blue states or red states but just the United States. There was also an implicit scolding of black men in that speech about fatherhood. I think we all got caught up in the exuberance of the Obama campaign and the historical significance of his presidency.

But if you go back and do a careful analysis, you’ll see that what he’s doing is consistent with what he had done as both a state and U.S. senator. I wish that he would engage regularly and more closely with the African American community. I wish the demographic which was his most consistent supporters had more to show for it. Certainly, I’m very, very pleased that Historically-Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), after organizing, were able to garner some additional dollars from the Obama administration. But at the same time, I can see so many other ways in which he could do so much better. He really has accomplished an awful lot as president, but his rhetoric and his reach were higher than his grasp. And as for our people, what we wanted was not what we got.

How have you defined your target audience?

My target audience is the universe, because I believe everybody should know about black economic history. But obviously, I focus on my community first.  

How do find time to get everything done, and how do you spend your relaxation time?

Relaxation time? Ha-ha, what’s that? I think peace is balance, and balance is peace, and I don’t have either one. I’m a high energy person. I struggle for balance. I really do. But finding my balance is a challenge.  

Are you ever afraid?

Yeah, every now and then. Not very often. I see myself as fearless, yet I know that I have been fearful. I was afraid of failure when I came to Bennett College, because education and my people are so important to me.

Are you happy?

Most of the time, not always.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

I ain’t gonna tell that.

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

A fine, feisty chameleon.

Why do you love doing what you do?

It’s empowering. Education has the power to transform lives. I also value institutional stability. I don’t want Bennett to be one of the ones lost.

How do you get through the tough times?

Friends, prayer, Pilates.

Who’s at the top of your hero list?

If you’re talking about the living, Rev. Jesse Jackson. He’s been a consistent friend, and he’s been persistent with the struggle. If you’re talking about people who are gone, Ida B. Wells.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

Self-criticism. I’m a perfectionist.   

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want to be known as a contributor. I want to leave more buildings at Bennett College that were built during the Malveaux Era. And I want to be known as a wise, witty economist who helped people think.