efore teaching her first class, before writing her first book, and before Mississippi officially recognized the Brown vs Board of Education decision, a teenage girl freshly transplanted from the civil rights hotbed of San Francisco to Moss Point, Miss., wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper.
“The word ‘Negroe’ is spelled with a capital ‘N’ and if you do not understand that, you can look in Webster’s dictionary under page such and such,” recalled the then-16-year-old and now-syndicated columnist, economist, professor and activist Dr. Julianne Malveaux, BC ’74, M.A. ’76.
Since penning that letter, Malveaux went on to write countless columns, four books, and give commentary on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, and the Howard University television show Evening Exchange. She’s appeared on panels with some of the biggest faces of contemporary civil rights issues—Cornel West, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Tavis Smiley—whom she now considers to be dear friends.
Malveaux distinguishes her brand of black feminist politics with an unflinching honesty. She’s as much a critic of her own progressive camp as she is of the other side. The same woman who detests President “rump” (she won’t say his name) and Mitch McConnell (a “turtle from Kentucky”) also criticizes Barack Obama, whom Malveaux felt was afraid of being perceived as “the President of black America,” and instead opted for “President of all America.”
After Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992, many leaders in the black community felt the story of a gifted black athlete taken down by the Justice Department to be all too familiar. But in a column called “Tyson—Villain, Not Victim,” Malveaux wondered why black clergy led prayer rallies for Tyson in Indianapolis “as if his accuser was not also deserving of prayer. The black Baptist leader who called the rally seems to be saying that a man’s word is worth more than a woman’s, no matter what the circumstances.”
In the forum of contemporary black political thought, Malveaux has dedicated her life to remind her co-panelists and fellow activists that black women are especially marginalized in the United States. When discussing the high single-motherhood rate in the black community, instead of following the line of typical commentary—“To let some mainstream policy analysts tell it, households headed by black women are the root cause of many of Black America’s social problems”—Malveaux celebrates black women, such as her own, in an homage to single mothers like her own in a column titled “Black Women Heading Households: A Tribute to Tenacity”
Malveaux’s mother, Proteone, completed coursework for her doctorate at University of California Berkeley in social work, but never graduated. She went on to become one of the first two black women to teach social work at the University of Mississippi. She was devoutly Catholic and made sure Malveaux and her four siblings were present for Mass at St. Kevin’s Church every Sunday.
But despite growing up with such an upstanding role model, Malveaux took pleasure in rebellion as a kid. A self-described “Problem Child,” Malveaux ran with a fast crowd growing up, “a baby Panther, hanging with a lot of activists.” She was at NAACP meetings and rallies at the age of 11.
So to instill some discipline into Malveaux, her mother sent her to live with her great aunt in Moss Point, Miss. Her great aunt had been the fifth grade teacher in Moss Point for 50 years and taught most of the black fifth-graders in the town.
The year was 1969 and Mississippi had yet to heed the decision of Brown v. Board of Education. Instead of following the rest of the country and putting black and white students in the same classroom, the state had its teachers alternate throughout the year between black and white schools.
“Integration was defined as being exposed to white teachers,” Malveaux said.
Though the cultural climate was much different from the Bay Area she grew up in, Malveaux says that it wasn’t all negative. Beyond the racism of the Deep South was a rich tradition of black history and culture.
“I loved having to learn James Weldon Johnson’s ‘The Creation’—‘God stepped out on space, and he looked around and said, ‘I’ll make me a world,’” Malveaux recited during an interview, more than 40 years after high school.
In the Dixie State, Malveaux confronted her race in a way she didn’t have to in San Francisco. Her great aunt introduced her to the family that used to own Malveaux’s ancestors.
“So I looked the man up and down, and although I was a baby, I said, ‘Where are our effing reparations?’” she said. “My aunt smacked the shit out of me in front of the man. She smacked me and said, ‘Apologize,’ and I said, ‘I will not.’”
Malveaux says her great aunt had internalized the racism she experienced while living in the Dixie State, and although she was highly educated, “she grew up in Mississippi so she was a colonized black woman, and she believed white people deserved a certain level of deference.”
“Integration was defined as being exposed to white teachers.” Julianne Malveaux
Malveaux finished the school year there and then returned home to San Francisco.
On May 1, 1969, Malveaux and her brother skipped school and attended a rally for the release of Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panthers who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1968 before the California Appellate Court reversed its decision in 1970 and ultimately freed him.
“Black is beautiful, free Huey,” Malveaux remembers chanting as a 16-year-old.
Malveaux’s mother recognized her daughter’s strong will and recommended she apply to college without worrying about finishing high school.
She decided to apply to colleges without starting her senior year and was admitted to a number, including Boston College and Howard University, one of the country’s most esteemed Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). But Howard needed to see a high school diploma before allowing her to enroll. After telling Howard multiple times that she had no intention of earning a high school diploma, she enrolled at BC without a diploma or GED. At the time, BC had a Black Talent Program (BTP) geared toward recruiting prospective black students.
She arrived on campus in the fall of 1970, the first year in which women were permitted to enroll in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences. Some of the buildings didn’t even have women’s bathrooms.
“The business building at the time did not have a women’s bathroom in it,” Malveaux said. “So if you were in class and you had to relieve yourself, you had to leave the building. Rain, sleet or snow.”
With confidence of mind and strength of conviction, Malveaux excelled in economics classes.
“Economics is the study of who gets what, when, where, and why. It’s the study of how the pie gets divided,” Malveaux said. “And I realized the reason there was such a wealth gap … between whites and African Americans is because African Americans used to be somebody’s property.”
Malveaux remembers a homework assignment on compound interest. She was much more engrossed with the topic than her classmates—so much so that she decided to type up the homework, a rarity in the age of typewriters.
“[The professor] took the name off my assignment and gave it out to other students to show, ‘This is what a good homework assignment looks like,’” she said.
But her experiences in other classes were not as positive. In a freshman English class, Malveaux was accused by her professor of not doing her own work. The professor insisted that Malveaux was copying the writing of the girl behind her.
“As if I have eyes in the back of my head. The professor at the time was an adjunct, [a] little blonde woman from Harvard,” Malveaux said. “She was just racist, as far as I’m concerned, even looking back on it. She just could not believe that a black girl could write as well as I did.”
Little did the professor know, Malveaux was already a published writer by the time she got to BC. When she was 9 or 10, Malveaux wrote a poem for the Journal of Black Poetry, and later as a teenager, a review for The Black Scholar of Martin Delaney’s 1861 book Blake, in which Malveaux admires the protagonist for being the antithesis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s meek and agreeable title character.
Because she skipped her senior year of high school, Malveaux was noticeably younger than her classmates.
“She had to shoulder her way in, and there was a tendency to see her as this young upstart, and yes, she was young in comparison to the rest of us, but there was no doubting her intellect,” said Ron LeGrand, BC ’72, BC Law ’80, a friend of hers for 48 years.
While at BC, Malveaux was visited by a man named Sam Myers, who wanted to recruit more black students to pursue Ph.D.s at MIT. She was convinced, and after finishing her M.A., BC said goodbye to one of its most prolific students.
t first as a Ph.D. candidate, Malveaux was unsure if she should have even been there. She considered transferring to law school or business school, although she admits she’s “not much of a capitalist.”
The summer after completing her first year, she got her first taste of airtime when she was offered a television internship in Dallas. The person in charge of hiring was recruiting science-oriented students to explore careers in television, and Malveaux was invited for the soft science of economics.
“I had my first on-air story. It was about a flower shop. And it began with the slide, ‘Ruby Begonia is not the name of the owner, but the business,’” she said.
She enjoyed her time at the internship, but cable news had yet to inflate into the phenomenon it is today, so there was virtually no demand for talking heads to provide commentary. She returned to MIT in the fall to continue her education.
While at MIT, Malveaux focused on African American labor.
“Like I said, I wanted to understand how the pie was sliced, and I wanted to understand why black folks had a smaller piece of it,” she said.
She successfully defended her thesis, “Unemployment Differentials by Race and Occupation,” which called into question the tired explanation that people like President Jimmy Carter used to explain unemployment disparities between blacks and whites—“black folks hold the wrong jobs,” mocked Malveaux.
“My dissertation asked, ‘Could you explain the differential by redistributing black people in the same occupations that white people were in? What if you changed the occupational distribution of black folk? Would that make the unemployment rate better?’ And the answer was ‘No,’” she said.
Malveaux served on a panel with one of the most iconic faces of contemporary civil rights issues during her time at MIT: Dr. Cornel West, philosopher, public intellectual, Professor of Public Philosophy at Harvard University, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.
“I could see even then that she was an electrical powerhouse. And then when we found out she was from San Francisco and I was from Sacramento, so we both felt a little California,” West said.
After graduating and teaching at The New School for Social Research for a year, she returned home to teach at San Francisco State at UC Berkeley, where she wrote both public and academic articles on issues surrounding race.
"She just could not believe that a black girl could write as well as I did.” Julianne Malveaux
Malveaux built up a steady portfolio of columns and was eventually approached about writing a book. She had contributed to other books in the past but never received the opportunity to have a byline of her own.
In 1994, Malveaux published Sex, Lies, and Stereotypes: Perspectives of a Mad Economist, a collection of essays that covered topics ranging from the economics of black businesses around Christmas, to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy, to reflections on the life of Malcolm X, to her thoughts on praying to a gendered God.
In the foreword, West describes her as “one of the last of a long line of American iconoclastic writers from Lydia Maria Child through H. L. Mencken to C. Wright Mills.”
The book introduced Malveaux to the world as a bold voice, unafraid to part from usual party lines, and she followed it up with Wall Street, Main Street, and the Side Street: A Mad Economist Takes a Stroll in 1999.
Before 2000, Malveaux made a name for herself delivering honest and thoughtful economic and racial commentary in essays that were easy to read but backed by a Ph.D. understanding of economics.
“She’s one of the few persons trained in economics who has a real sense of history and a sense of political struggle. She keeps at arms distance a kind of stale neoclassical economics that’s hegemonic in the academy,” said West. “She understands that economics is a matter of the imbalance of powers and forces as opposed to keeping track of statistics.”
“She understands that economics is a matter of the imbalance of powers and forces as opposed to keeping track of statistics.” Cornel West
In 2002, she co-authored The Paradox of Loyalty: An African American Response to the War on Terrorism, a collection of essays, by Malveaux and others, that consider America’s response after the Sept. 11 attacks in light of how America has dealt with other victims in the past. In a chapter titled “Shared Status: A Global Imperative,” Malveaux asks the reader to consider how many other days in history 3,000 people died.
Malveaux surveys history and suggests to readers that the Tulsa riots of 1921, the Rwandan genocide, and the AIDS epidemic all probably resulted in just as deadly days, but none sparked a response as urgent as 9/11.
“The optimist in me feels that it is not our intention to elevate some victims over others, while the pessimist in me looks at the expanse of our nation’s history to conclude that the United States has never been able to embrace the concept of shared status,” she writes.
Malveaux’s fearlessness earned her an invitation in 2006 to lecture at Bennett College, one of two HBCUs for women. To her surprise, they were also looking for a new president of the college and Malveaux was encouraged to apply.
She was hired and served as president from 2007 until 2012. By then, Malveaux had befriended a long list of black leaders.
“I was able to bring my entire rolodex of people like Susan Taylor and Jesse Jackson and others to come down and speak to the young women,” she said.
The students basked in the opportunities to meet such titans of civil rights, and the campus buzzed with excitement. Though she had been at other HBCUs before, this was Malveaux’s first long-term stay, and it afforded her the opportunity to personally meet the 500 young women at the small college in Greensboro, N.C.
“When you do public policy or social science research, you’re typically at the 30,000-feet level and you’re using poverty as an example,” she said. “You don’t know about the young person who can’t get access to a computer and had to send a handwritten letter saying, ‘I can’t get my application online.’”
Malveaux was on the tight-knit campus on the eve of Obama’s presidential election. She still remembers the vibrancy and sense of hope that permeated throughout campus.
“Students were involved, they were engaged. It was great to be at an HBCU,” she said.
But as excited as Malveaux was that evening, she grew more and more disappointed in the president as his tenure progressed.
“When the police arrested Skip, er, [Harvard] professor Henry Louis Gates for breaking into his own house, President Obama said something which I thought was entirely appropriate. And, you know, several white folks and law enforcement went crazy,” she said. “I think at that point, he maybe said—and I don’t know this—but he maybe said ‘You know what, I want to be a good president. I’m going to distance myself.’ And that’s how it showed up for many of us and for many older black people.”
In her most recent book, Are We Better Off? Race, Obama, and Public Policy, a collection of her columns during the Obama administration, Malveaux considers the economic and social effects of the President, who she criticizes for bailing out banks during the 2008 recession while allowing for the confiscation of a significant portion of black wealth through foreclosure. Obama was a great symbol, but his presidency lacked substance for black people, Malveaux thinks.
“Yes we can. No he didn’t,” Malveaux writes in the epilogue.
“What sticks with me all these years about Julianne is her candor, which hasn’t always sat well with people,” said Legrand. “It is candid and it is honest. And folks have not always been comfortable with honesty. But no one can question that it is honest.”
After a career teaching hundreds of students, publishing columns in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, and giving commentary on Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor and Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, Malveaux is now working on her own political talk show through University of D.C. TV, on which she interviews politicians like Stacey Abrams and professors like Ivory Toldson from Howard University.
“The show is called Malveaux! because wherever I go, there is an exclamation point.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier edition of this article stated that Dr. Malveaux’s mother, Proteone, completed her PhD at UC Berkley. She completed the coursework, but did not finish with a PhD.
Photo Courtesy of Julianne Malveaux