Georgia’s Lisa Cook: Fed nominee in harsh spotlight, cusp of history

Cook could become the first Black woman to serve on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors

An economist with deep roots in Georgia is poised to become the first Black woman on the board of the Federal Reserve, but she must first pass through stiff opposition from conservatives who say she is not qualified.

Lisa Cook’s allies say she earned the high-profile nomination through decades spent researching and analyzing issues related to personal wealth and economic activity.

A Milledgeville native and magna cum laude Spelman College graduate, she was named by President Joe Biden to serve on the Fed’s Board of Governors, an appointment that requires Senate approval. A professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State, she defended her resume during a sometimes contentious Senate hearing earlier this month.

“I certainly am proud of my academic background,” she said during the Banking Committee nomination hearing. “I know that I have been the target of anonymous and untrue attacks on my academic record.”

The 108-year-old, seven-member Fed board has included fewer than a dozen females and never a Black woman. There have been only three Black men in its history, though a fourth has been nominated alongside Cook.

This would not be her first breach of a racial barrier, having grown up in the backwash of the 1960s: young enough to have missed the most intense Civil Rights battles, yet old enough to witness its lingering effects.

She and her sisters helped integrate local schools and public pools.

After becoming Spelman’s first Marshall Scholar and graduating in 1986, Cook received a second bachelors at Oxford University. She then moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a doctorate degree in macroeconomics and international economics.

Education was the family’s designated pathway to success, said Sam Cook, Lisa’s cousin. “I am the only member of the family without at least a master’s degree. And my dad held Lisa up as an example to us.”

Some Republicans argue that her degrees, research and decades of work were not relevant to the role of the Fed in managing monetary policy. Supporters say the critique follows the Republican pattern of downplaying the accomplishments of women, especially women of color.

Disparagement of Cook echoes the attacks mounted after Biden vowed to name a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. He hasn’t decided whom to appoint, but some conservatives have already questioned whether she will be qualified.

Cook said she could bring fresh ideas to the Fed, and she considers it an asset.

“Our economy is constantly evolving,” she told the committee. “Learning to do better will require humility, perseverance, and diverse perspectives.”

A committee vote on the Fed nominees is expected early this week, to be followed by a floor vote in the Senate.

With a dozen regional banks around the country, including Atlanta, the Fed’s most high-profile role is controlling short-term interest rates, a policy that can fuel the economy by making it cheaper for companies and consumers to borrow money or chill growth by making it more expensive. The Fed can also determine the nation’s supply of money by buying or selling government bonds.

Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee told Cook during this month’s Banking Committee hearing that her background was impressive but didn’t seem related to the Fed’s mission. “If I look at your list of publications and your speeches, it seems more like social science than it does economics and monetary policy,” he said.

Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee questions Lisa Cook during last week’s Banking Committee hearing for her nomination to the Federal Reserve Board.

Her supporters point out that Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has a juris doctor, not an advanced degree in economics, but he has been confirmed by the Senate twice. And they say other criticism of Cook being too radical is based on a distortion of past statements, including those she made on the issue of reparations for Black Americans.

That attack is pegged to a 2020 interview with an economics website in which Cook said the nation must still reckon with how the institution of slavery benefited the rest of society. She said that reparation proposals should “be taken seriously.”

Cook has had visiting appointments with the Federal Reserve Banks of New York, Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, and dealt with Fed policies when she was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers during President Barack Obama’s administration.

Supporters say her expertise may not be in controlling inflation — one-half of the Fed’s mandate — but it directly applies to the other half: maximizing employment. Claudia Sahm, a former Fed economist, said the bank would be well served by including people with diverse perspectives.

“The macroeconomics profession never let go of their laser-like focus on inflation and their dismissiveness about the people on the margin of the labor market,” Sahm said. “There are plenty of scholars — Lisa, many other Black and brown scholars, economists — who have beat the drum forever, but the attacks on Lisa Cook show that even in 2022 the elite macroeconomists are hell-bent on keeping those voices silenced.”

Romie Tribble, professor of economics at Spelman College, said he’s known Cook since she was a student and, as president of the student government, she was involved in the school’s divestment from apartheid-era South Africa.

“She’s very qualified,” he said. “She understands that when the Fed is setting interest rate policy, it’s not about one portion or another, it’s about the whole economy.”

Cook’s past shines a light on her character now, said Mary Parham-Copelan, a friend and peer of Cook’s who is now mayor of Milledgeville’s 19,000 residents. “I remember when we had to go into the back of a restaurant, they wouldn’t let us in the front.”

Lisa Cook was an ‘A’ student, a Girl Scout, a basketball player and she sang in the choir at Flagg Chapel Baptist Church, Parham-Copelan said.

Lisa was the middle child between two sisters. Their mother was the first African American professor at Georgia College, their father a chaplain at the hospital. Both were politically active, determined but decorous, and they counted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a family friend.

About 95 miles southeast of Atlanta, Milledgeville was outside the big city’s swirl of business and politics and perhaps a little behind it in making changes. But it was not a place where a middle-class Black family couldn’t dream big.

Parham-Copelan saw something of the family’s discipline as Cook faced at times hostile questioning during the Senate hearing. “I never saw her mother get rattled,” Parham-Copelan said. “I never saw her father get rattled.”

Lisa Cook’s education

B.A., Spelman College

B.A., Oxford University

Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley

Included on Lisa Cook’s resume:

Faculty, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government

Deputy director for Africa Research at Harvard’s Center for International Development

Fellow, Stanford University

Research associate, the National Bureau of Economic Research

Member, White House Council of Economic Advisors

Member, the Council on Foreign Relations

Guest columnist, New York Times and Detroit Free Press

Contributor, CNBC, MSNBC, NPR

Director, American Economic Association Summer Program

President, National Economic Association

Visiting appointments, the Federal Reserve Banks of New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia

Languages: English, French, Latin, Russian, Spanish, Wolof