Lehigh economics professor draws ire for saying 'poverty is not determined by race'

Students and faculty spoke out against the claim that a person's choices, such as graduating from high school and working full-time, can influence their economic status.

A social media account created a fake racist quote and falsely attributed it to the professor.

Dr. Frank Gunter, a professor of economics at Lehigh University, ignited controversy by publishing a university-sponsored video in which he stated that “poverty is not a matter of race.”

The video was part of a series called “Kitchen Table Talks,” in which Lehigh faculty members would give advice to the Biden administration based on their respective areas of expertise. 

Gunter looked at census data and presented his findings, arguing the “reality is that most Blacks are not poor, and most poor are not Black.” He also asserted that “poverty is not a generational trap,” based on data about economic mobility over time. Gunter then said that a person’s individual choices can influence their economic outcomes, namely graduating from high school, working full-time, waiting until age 21 for marriage, and waiting until marriage to have children. 

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Professor Amardeep Singh, who teaches English at Lehigh, took issue with how Gunter spoke about these issues. Singh wrote, “The real problem with Professor Gunter’s slides is a matter of how he frames his arguments and the language he uses, not necessarily the data itself.”

Lehigh Students for BLM posted on Instagram that “[Gunter’s] statements were racist and ignorant.”

A social media group called “Dear Predominantly White Institutions,” which features commentary from people of color who attend predominantly white colleges and universities, posted screenshots from the video in a slideshow, with the final slide being an unattributed quote reading, “While I don’t endorse slavery, economically, it is genius.” Gunter’s video contains no such statement. 

Gunter told the Brown and White that the quote was a “hoax,” and that  “Slavery along with genocide are probably some of the worst actions that can be committed – but it’s also bad economics —slavery has been a dead end in economic development. It has destroyed every society that adopted it.”

The Brown and White also spoke with students who called Gunter’s statements “lazy economics” done using “cherry-picked” data points. 

The controversy quickly spread beyond campus. Activist Anna Gifty, who is working towards a doctorate in public policy at Harvard, published screenshots from the video, saying “What the actual hell is going on here?”

In light of the backlash, the Lehigh College of Business took down the video, but later reposted it alongside a companion video, requested by school leadership and created by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. The second video provided context about the video by Gunter.

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The school also responded in an Instagram post, which stated, “When discussion ensures, we consider this a positive sign...Given the response, we plan to post more videos with diverse perspectives on this topic.”

In his video, Gunter explained the importance of telling the truth on this issue: “We have a better chance of success in fighting poverty if the decisions are based on the reality of poverty in America and not on widely-held myths.” 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito