Julianne Malveaux’s salvos: renowned Black intellectual on economics, history

Photo courtesy of Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux is the 15th president of Bennett College for Women. Recognized for her progressive and insightful observations, this brilliant economist and author has been described by Dr. 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 immeasurably 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.

Currently, Malveaux 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.

KW: What interested you in writing this book?

JM: I was inspired by the fact that so much African American history is not common knowledge or [is] 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.

KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: How have your days as an MIT-trained economist aided in your daily work of being a college president?

JM: 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.

KW: Irene also says: Your book chronicles past Black economic achievement. Where do you envision economic opportunities for African Americans in the future?

JM: 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.

KW: Irene asks: What special barriers do you see that prevent Black people from attaining economic parity? Do you see any strategies to overcome these barriers?

JM: 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.

KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: Do you think middle-class African Americans have been more adversely impacted by the recession than other Americans?

Being last hired, overburdened by graduate student debt, facing possible foreclosure due to buying at the top of the market before the crash, many African Americans in this socio-economic bracket were the last to hit the prosperity wave and seem to have fallen on worse times than their similarly-educated peers.

Many people depend on the continued extension of jobless benefits and have lived through their savings, creating a dependent middle class. What is your take on this? What is your advice for people who find themselves in this predicament?

JM:
I would say Bernadette’s absolutely right about the recent, young Black middle class who purchased late and who have high student debt. 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.

KW: How did you feel about the TARP Program?

JM: I thought that bailout was welfare for the wealthy. Then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson came to President Bush and said essentially, “We need $700 billion,” but he didn’t say why. And it was a pool of money that wasn’t being doled out equitably, so I opposed it.

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

JM: 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.

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

JM: Yes and no. Me and Cornel get in trouble about that all the time. Let me say this. If you look at 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 that 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.

KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?

JM: Cleopatra: A Life [by Stacy Schiff, Little, Brown and Company, 2010]. I read just about everything. I love history, biographies, reading about women and just about anything Black of quality, but not that ghetto lit stuff.

KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?

JM: Jazz, primarily. I find it relaxing, and I can write with it on in the background. Also, gospel and John Legend.

KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?

JM: I very rarely cook, but I do make a decent cioppino. It’s a little easier for me to make than gumbo, ’cause I don’t have a good recipe for roux.

KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?

JM:
I design many of my own clothes. I haunt fabric stores whenever I have some free time. I look at Vogue, and I have a tailor that I work with by drawing whatever I want.

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

JM: A fine, feisty chameleon.

KW:
If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

JM: For Bennett College and other HBCUs to be well endowed.

KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?

JM: Climbing up onto a table to get a book they were trying to keep out of my reach, when I was about three.

KW: The Nancy Lovell Question: Why do you love doing what you do?

JM: 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.

KW: The Flex Alexander question: How do you get through the tough times?

JM: Friends, prayer, Pilates.

KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?

JM: If you’re talking about the living, Reverend 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.

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

JM: Self-criticism. I’m a perfectionist.

KW:
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

JM: Just do it.

KW: How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?

JM:
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.

To order a copy of Dr. Malveaux’s book Surviving and Thriving, or to learn more about Dr. Malveaux, go to www.juli annemalveaux.com.

TARP Program?

JM: I thought that bailout was welfare for the wealthy. Then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson came to President Bush and said essentially, “We need $700 billion,” but he didn’t say why. And it was a pool of money that wasn’t being doled out equitably, so I opposed it.

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

JM: 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.

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

JM: Yes and no. Me and Cornel get in trouble about that all the time. Let me say this. If you look at 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 that 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.

KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?

JM: Cleopatra: A Life [by Stacy Schiff, Little, Brown and Company, 2010]. I read just about everything. I love history, biographies, reading about women and just about anything Black of quality, but not that ghetto lit stuff.

KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?

JM: Jazz, primarily. I find it relaxing, and I can write with it on in the background. Also, gospel and John Legend.

KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?

JM: I very rarely cook, but I do make a decent cioppino. It’s a little easier for me to make than gumbo, ’cause I don’t have a good recipe for roux.

KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?

JM: I design many of my own clothes. I haunt fabric stores whenever I have some free time. I look at Vogue, and I have a tailor that I work with by drawing whatever I want.

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

JM: A fine, feisty chameleon.

KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

JM: For Bennett College and other HBCUs to be well endowed.

KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?

JM: Climbing up onto a table to get a book they were trying to keep out of my reach, when I was about three.

KW: The Nancy Lovell Question: Why do you love doing what you do?

JM: 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.

KW: The Flex Alexander question: How do you get through the tough times?

JM: Friends, prayer, Pilates.

KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?

JM: If you’re talking about the living, Reverend 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.

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

JM: Self-criticism. I’m a perfectionist.

KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

JM: Just do it.

KW: How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?

JM: 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.

To order a copy of Dr. Malveaux’s book Surviving and Thriving, or to learn more about Dr. Malveaux, go to www.juli annemalveaux.com.