Roland G. Fryer Biography
In 2003, economist Roland G. Fryer joined the faculty of Harvard University as one of the youngest professors in the school's history. Fryer's specialty is race-based economic issues, and his research projects seek to answer the question of why African-Americans are harder hit by poverty than other demographic groups in America. "I basically want to figure out where blacks went wrong," he told Stephen J. Dubner in a lengthy profile that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2005. "Blacks are the worst-performing ethnic group on SAT's. Blacks earn less than whites. They are still just not doing well, period."
Fryer's own life story is illustrative of many of the negative factors that intersect in the lives of children in impoverished communities—but it is also the tale of impressive triumph over such hurdles. He grew up believing that his mother, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, abandoned him as an infant. His father, a former math teacher turned copier salesperson, raised him somewhat carelessly in the Texas town of Lewisville, near Dallas. He was close to his strict, formidable grandmother in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he spent summers, but at least eight close relatives were either jailed or died young. When he stayed with his grandmother, whom everyone called "Fat," he liked to visit his great-aunt's house, out of which she and family ran a profitable crack-cocaine operation. One day, Fryer dawdled on his way there, and arrived to see the house surrounded by law-enforcement officials; nearly everyone in the household went to prison for their involvement in the illegal dealings.
Fryer's life back in Texas was spiraling downward as well by the time he reached his teens. His father began drinking more heavily, and was abusive to him and others. When Fryer was in high school, his father was convicted of sexual assault. During this period, the future economist found his niche not in academics but as a standout athlete. The long football and basketball practice hours kept him out of the house, and later helped him win a college athletic scholarship. But he also led a double life, selling marijuana and carrying a gun. "I didn't care if I lived or died," he said in the interview with Dubner in the New York Times Magazine. "I always think I'm supposed to be dead, not alive, much less at Harvard."
Fryer's turning point came when he was pulled over by the police, who ordered him out of his car and on the ground, and drew their guns on him. They let him go, but later that day he was invited to come along with some friends who were planning a burglary. He turned them down, and they were caught and jailed for the crime. Fryer tried to keep out of trouble until he left Lewisville for the University of Texas at Arlington. Though he had not been an outstanding student in high school, he was forced to study to keep up, and discovered that not only did he like to learn, but he also seemed to have an aptitude for it. Less than three years later, he earned his undergraduate degree in economics.
From there Fryer went on to Penn State University for a doctorate in economics. At a conference he met Glenn Loury, a prominent black economist who became a mentor. Fryer began writing academic papers based on research studies he conducted with others in his field. After fellowships with the National Science Foundation and the National Bureau of Economic Research, Fryer earned his Ph.D. and was invited to join the Harvard faculty. He was just 25 years old and the post, moreover, was with the Society of Fellows, one of the most coveted jobs in American academia.
Fryer's research had attracted tremendous interest in the field for its novel approach by the time he reached Harvard. His papers, jointly written with other scientists, include an examination of why African Americans seem to have lowered life-expectancy rates, dying on average of six years earlier than whites, and to be plagued by higher rates of certain chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, and kidney disease. Fryer once came across an illustration that depicted a slave trader of yore licking the face of a slave. Many blacks died on the transatlantic voyage from Africa to the New World, and those slaves who survived its abysmal conditions wound up becoming the gene pool of African-American population. Fryer and fellow researchers David M. Cutler and Nathan Glazer wondered if traders picked the saltier-tasting ones, who were perhaps more likely to retain salt, and thus retain water and not die of dehydration on the voyage. Those factors, generations later, became a negative factor in life expectancy.
Fryer has also conducted "An Economic Analysis of 'Acting White,'" in which he looked at black teen students who perform better in school than their peers, and investigated possible workplace biases against job applicants with unusual first names. Other research projects of his include an analysis of Ku Klux Klan membership, school segregation, and outcomes for children of mixed-race partnerships. A week after the New York Times Magazine article appeared, Fryer appeared on The Tavis Smiley Show, which airs on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television. He discussed his work and its relevance to race relations in the United States. "What economics tells us about race is that race isn't rocket science," he explained. "It's harder than that." The fate of African Americans, he continued, is tied to a variety of factors. "We could blame institutions, we can blame white discrimination, we can blame racism, we can blame … parenting. There's a lot of things we could put on the table. What economics is going to have us do is take those things, put everything on the table, and kind of break them apart one by one with careful, scientific research. I think that, I hope, is the future of the study of race."
There are few African Americans working in Fryer's field, and he realizes that his own minority status likely insulates him from criticism that might be leveled at a white colleague looking at the same issues. He also believes that a purely scientific approach, using hard numbers and dry data, is the best way to consider such topics as poverty and educational disparities. As he conceded in the interview with Smiley, there are a few critics of his work, and some who wonder about the folly of conducting long-term socioeconomic studies about the lives of African Americans in the twenty-first century—studies that result in a sixty-page paper, not better schools or social-service programs for America's neediest neighborhoods. Fryer responded by bringing up his grandmother and her attitude toward his career. "Every time I tell Fat, she say, well, what you doing up there at Harvard? I would say, look, I'm trying to figure out why black kids aren't doing well," Fryer said on Smiley's show. "She say, well, I could have told you that. And look, my answer to her is, all I'm trying to do is scientifically test your intuition."
Business Week, November 3, 2003, p. 24.
New York Times Magazine, March 20, 2005, p. 1.
"Roland Gerhard Fryer Jr. Curriculum Vita," Harvard University, http://post.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/fryer.html (November 6, 2005).
Interview with Tavis Smiley, The Tavis Smiley Show, PBS, March 30, 2005.
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