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The Fed's lack of diversity is hurting its judgment

Janet Yellen chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve
Win McNamee | Getty Images
Janet Yellen chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen found herself in the hot seat at the recent bi-annual Humphrey Hawkins testimony as members of Congress challenged her over the lack of diversity among the Fed's ranks.

Asked by Senator Elizabeth Warren whether she was concerned that 10 of the 12 Fed's regional presidents are men, Yellen answered that she did believe it was "important to have a diverse group of policymakers who can bring different perspectives to bear."

The nation's central bank has recently come under intense scrutiny for appointing predominantly white men from the banking and corporate sectors to leadership positions. Last month, 127 members of Congress sent a widely publicized letter to Yellen calling for her to commit to leadership that better reflects the diversity of the United States.

For the last two years, the Fed Up coalition – comprised of community organizations and labor groups in each of the 12 Federal Reserve districts – has sat down with Yellen and other Fed policymakers to ask that more diverse candidates are considered for directorships at the Federal Reserve Banks, and that the process for selecting Federal Reserve Bank presidents be opened up to greater transparency and public input.

The call for a Fed membership that reflects America's diversity was enshrined in a law passed by Congress 40 years ago, an important thing to keep in mind when considering the modest recent progress touted by Yellen. The law requires the Federal Reserve to "represent the public, without discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, or national origin, and with due but not exclusive consideration to the interests of agriculture, commerce, industry, services, labor and consumers."

While we are encouraged that Yellen became the first woman ever to hold the position of Fed Chair in 2014, the reality of the Federal Reserve is far from representative of the public. Currently, 11 of the 12 regional Reserve Bank presidents are white and 10 of the 12 are men. Not a single Reserve Bank president is Black or Latino, which means there is no representation from the communities hardest hit by the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, there has never been an African American president of a Reserve Bank in the history of the Federal Reserve System.

Moreover, all voting members of the Fed's powerful interest rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) are white.

This is a problem. The power for ensuring the country reaches full employment rests solely with people who do not share the lived experiences of those most affected by their policies. The voices of women, African-Americans, Latinos, and representatives of consumers and labor are being shut out of key discussions over our economic future.

The impact of the economic crisis was not experienced uniformly across different communities, with the vaunted recovery never reaching some segments. The unemployment rate for African-Americans currently stands at 9 percent, more than double the unemployment rate for white Americans of 4.3 percent. The Latino unemployment rate of 5.6 percent is also worse than what it is for white Americans.

In a marked shift from her stance a year ago, Yellen noted racial disparities in economic outcomes in her opening remarks to Congress and stressed the importance of monitoring "different groups in the labor market to see if what we perceived as broad-based labor market improvement is being widely shared."

"Elizabeth Warren told Janet Yellen that the current process for appointing regional bank presidents 'is broken.'"

Compare this with her testimony last year, when Yellen dismissed the impact full employment can have on reducing racial disparities in unemployment and wages, claiming the Fed's tools were limited.

Yellen separately acknowledged racial disparities and the need for greater diversity among Fed leadership, but stopped short of linking the two. We believe the two are inextricably linked – a Fed filled with white male bankers will never be able to fully relate to impoverished communities of color.

That is why we have offered Yellen a slate of 39 candidates from which she can appoint directors to sit on the boards of the regional Banks. Drawn from all 12 Fed regions, the candidates are racially diverse, gender balanced and come from a range of backgrounds in labor, academia, and community-based organizations.

Elizabeth Warren told Janet Yellen that the current process for appointing regional Bank presidents "is broken." Yellen can demonstrate her commitment to diversity by appointing any of these 39 candidates to open board director positions.

Warren and other members of Congress in both houses are standing with low-wage workers to shine a light on our nation's opaque but vitally important economic policymaking institution. It's time for the Fed to heed the call on behalf of the millions of Americans around the country who are still suffering from the devastating impact of the 2008 crisis. It's time for the Fed to truly represent the public.

Commentary by Dushaw Hockett, executive director of The SPACEs Project, a Washington DC-based community organization, and a member of the Fed Up campaign, an initiative of the Center for Popular Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @Dushaw_Hockett.

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