Mentorship Without Hierarchy

The economists Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity met as student and adviser. Now, they see themselves as equals.

Larry Downing / Reuters

In their research together, the economists Darrick Hamilton and William “Sandy” Darity Jr. have examined the racial wealth gap and policies to address it, such as a federal jobs guarantee. The pair met 20 years ago, when Darity was Hamilton’s dissertation adviser at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since then, they’ve moved on to different universities—Darity is now at Duke, and Hamilton at the New School—but they’ve kept up a friendship based on their research as well as other common interests such as college basketball.

Hamilton describes their relationship as one without “hierarchies.” He says that while mentorship is often reduced to binary roles, such as teacher-student or boss-employee, his dynamic with Darity doesn’t quite fit that mold. As their work and lives have changed, so has the way that they learn from each other; Darity, for instance, once convinced his younger mentee of the benefits of using social media.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with the pair about their almost family-like dynamic and how, in their field, mentorship can be corrupted by paternalism. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisha Brown: Darrick, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from Sandy?

Darrick Hamilton: “Never underestimate the burden of being Jackie Robinson.”

Brown: What did you mean by that, Sandy?

Sandy Darity: An individual from an underrepresented group who’s the first to take a position may face a burden: Their performance will affect whether or not other members of their ethnic or racial group are actually hired [in the future]. Sometimes, they’re going to be confronted with levels of overt racism they might not face in a situation where there’s a much longer tradition of folks from their social group being present.

Brown: How do you think race and underrepresentation can affect mentoring relationships in economics?

Hamilton: The profession often sees people from underrepresented groups, like women, in a paternalistic fashion. They will say, “I will mentor this person and show them how to do it.” I don’t think that’s the right approach. A better approach is giving them information, so that they can make choices.

Darity: There is also the question of, what type of information do you give them? Are you affording them the same set of opportunities that you would afford a non-black set of Ph.D. students?

Brown: How are you trying to change the demographics in the field of economics?

Hamilton: Our profession is all about networks. One of the things we try to do with the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics [a program at Duke focused on the professional development of racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in the field] is create a network where assistant professors on campus have access to other scholars who might be at another campus. Another thing we try to emphasize is an obligation to give back. That’s another lesson I’ve learned from Sandy and something that drives me.

Brown: So why did each of you choose to become an economist?

Darity: I am very committed to trying to understand problems associated with inequality and poverty, and the design of policies that would actually alter those conditions. I made the assumption that because economics was about money, that would be the discipline to do that kind of study. I was very quickly disappointed by the approaches economists used to understand poverty and inequality. I decided I’d be an economist with the intent of changing the way economists think about these issues.

Hamilton: For me, some of it was serendipity. I thought that economics was the pathway to go to law school or business school. While in college, I realized that, through various mentorship programs, there was a pathway where I could have economic security as well as a career that I was passionate about.

Brown: How did you and Sandy meet?

Hamilton: Sandy was my dissertation adviser in graduate school. I was naturally drawn to him because of similar research interests. I can’t think of a more ideal teacher-student relationship. He put me in positions to be successful.

Brown: How did you go from advisor and advisee to research collaborators?

Hamilton: From early on, he would say things like “brother” to refer to our relationship. He really tried to break down that hierarchy of teacher and pupil. It was not competitive—it was collaborative. At some point there were epiphanies where I realized I was making substantial contributions to the relationship.

Darity: A lot of it has to do with Darrick’s personality and outlook that made it possible for the relationship to work. I was always inviting him to be a partner and collaborator in the research enterprise that I was undertaking. He also had a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the conventional wisdom of economics.