When Kerwin Charles first heard about the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis from a close friend, he felt one powerful emotion surge through his body. It was rage.
The friend had asked Charles, the dean of Yale University’s School of Business, whether he had seen the horrific video clip of a police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes. “I hadn’t seen it,” says Charles. “He described it, and I couldn’t look at it for awhile. I was very angry and upset.
“And so there was a feeling of rage, an immediate overpowering rage. I’m certain that what I felt was no different from the feelings of all Black men and Black people. There is a feeling of solidarity, understanding, profound compassion and empathy. And then there’s a feeling of vulnerability. I will not pretend that Black people who are professors at Yale, or who work for the New Yorker magazine or work in law firms have the same lived experience as the Black people at the median and below in the cities where they live.”
Charles has a unique lens with which to view the current debate over racial injustice and economic inequality. As a social scientist and economist, he has spent much of his time as a scholar studying and publishing on such topics as earnings and wealth inequality, race and gender labor market discrimination, the intergenerational transmission of economic status, and the lack of work among prime-aged persons.
After the murder of Floyd, he published one of the strongest and most heartfelt condemnation of racism in America by any university official. Charles called Floyd’s death “the most recent installment in a regrettable catalog of black men meeting violent deaths at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve them. The litany of these occurrences spans good and bad economic times, cuts across Democratic and Republican administrations, and respects no regional boundaries.”
As one of the few deans of color at a major business school, Charles, who was born in Guyana, acknowledged that he has told the young people in his extended family to exercise caution if they ever come in contact with police. “To the anxieties that lead virtually all of the black families I know, including my own, to preach to their children, and especially their sons, the need for extreme caution when interacting with the police, is thus added frustration from the indignity of not having those fears understood or even believed,” he wrote.
Poets&Quants invited Charles for a webinar conversation on racial injustice with P&Q founder and editor-in-chief John A. Byrne. Born in Buxton, Guyana, a village purchased by former and current slaves from previous slave owners, Charles left his home country for the University of Miami. He received his doctorate from Cornell University and taught economics and public policy at the University of Michigan before moving to the University of Chicago in 2005 to teach at the Harris School of Public Policy. He received multiple teaching awards and his many academic leadership roles have included running centers and programs within the Harris School and serving as the school’s deputy dean and later its interim dean, until being named Yale SOM dean in 2019. An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
John A. Byrne: So what brought you to United States?
Kerwin Charles: It’s a good question. Guyana was socialist when I grew up. Many of my friends and classmates left after high school to study in the Eastern Block in then Czechoslovakia, then USSR, and many more studied in Cuba. As I completed my studies in high school, we learned of an opportunity at the University of Miami where they were giving a scholarship to people from my part of the world. I applied, got a very generous scholarship and went there intending to study mathematics. But I stumbled into an economics class at the beginning of my junior year. I remember the class. It was taught by a professor called Phil Robins, and he was talking about labor markets. And I remember sitting in the class halfway through and thinking, “I don’t want to do anything else.”
Byrne: He must have been incredibly passionate teacher.
Charles: He was a great teacher. So I completed a double major at Miami and then went to Cornell which was the best place to think about and study labor markets. And I’ve been in the U.S. I go home to Guyana periodically, but I consider myself a man of two places, having lived the vast majority of my life here as much from a place that I was raised as a child.
Byrne: And of course, after Cornell, you also ended up obviously at the University of Chicago.
Charles: Yes. Before Chicago, I went to Michigan. Michigan was my first job. I had a joint appointment in the economics department and in the School of Public Policy. Going to Michigan was in some ways the best professional decision of my career. I met there mentors who remained to me persons of incalculable importance today, in terms of the actuThis is how you do that. That won’t work, that and so on. And in terms of the example they set. After receiving tenure there, I moved to Chicago, and I was in the Policy School of Chicago. In the Policy School, I served for many years as a deputy dean in charge of all faculty related matters, appointments, promotions, and the like. And I tried write as many papers as I could. And then after many years of that, I moved here to take on the duties of the deanship of SOM.
Byrne: How did it come to be that you spent so much of your early life studying labor economics and in particular wealth inequality?
Charles: I love economics and one of the things I liked about it was the rigor and the precision with which interactions were defined, classified, testable predictions could be derived from theory, that kind of stuff. I also am a Black man navigating the world. And I have friends and family, a girlfriend, aunts, cousins who are themselves navigating. Overwhelmingly, the majority of my family lives in the U.S. navigating life here.
My training in economics and labor markets is highlighting to me, the theoretical unimportance features of the container in which skill is possessed. Which is to say that firms should not care whether your eyes are blue or brown, whether you’re boy or girl, or what race you are. Everything in my lived experience, everything that I heard from friends and family, and much that I observed around me suggested that race is indeed a huge delimiter of life capacity. How could that be given what I was being taught and believed in this field? And so it was natural in a way, that I would think about race as an important part of my research. Because it’s so much about racial outcomes, racial processes, racial differences in the U.S. and elsewhere seemed at variance with how the labor market ought to be operating. And so the combination of those two things made racial, gender, ethnic and other differences an essential part of my work.
Byrne: Was there a moment of clarity when that became a passion for you and assumed importance?
Charles: I would say no. I would say it is ever present. And so I was thinking the other day as I talked to a graduate student who was thinking about what she wants to do. I’ve written lots of papers over my life on all the kinds of topics. But I will often return after a hiatus of two or three papers to something having to do with earnings or wealth inequality by race. I might pause to write about some other thing maybe for years. And I love, and I’m proud of those papers, but I will return to this theme. It is there from the very beginning of my scholarly career. There is no single moment when the realization dawned on me that, “Oh, this will be a focus of mine.” It was a kind of spur of the moment thing. By the way, I think I’m similar to many academics of color who live and work in the social sciences. If I studied particle physics, it would be less obvious how race could play a role in my scholarly inquiry. I’m an economist, I’m a labor economist. So the set of things that have commanded my attention have tended to be in the labor wealth space.
Byrne: Were you ever dissuaded from pursuing that focus in your life? Academia, aftr all, is pretty white.
Charles: It was and is. But I can think of no example where I was explicitly directed against the practice of including in my research portfolio matters things having to do with race. Having said that, I will admit to occasionally being concerned about being seen with sufficient breadth as a scholar. I don’t like to speak for other people, but I suspect that this too is true for lots of black scholars. Listen, I care a lot about these matters, but I also care about unionization. I care about a minimum wage. I’m curious about immigration. And so the black scholar carries this slight anxiety, a vague unease. You worry that an exclusive focus on race causes others to see her/ him in a narrower intellectual box. So whereas no one ever cautioned me against it, there are things we take on ourselves.