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US Senate confirms Cook to Fed, first Black woman on board

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A researcher focused on how discrimination has harmed the American economy and the damage downturns do to the poor, Lisa Cook (pictured February 2022) is expected to bring a new perspective to the US Federal Reserve./AFP
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May 11, 2022 - 06:34 AM

WASHINGTON — The US Senate on Tuesday confirmed Lisa Cook to the Federal Reserve, making her the first Black woman to serve on the central bank’s board.

Her nomination was narrowly approved on a party line vote. With all Democrats in support and all Republicans opposed in the evenly divided chamber, Vice President Kamala Harris — in her role as president of the Senate — broke the 50-50 deadlock.

“The vice president votes in the affirmative, and the nomination is confirmed,” Harris told the Senate.

Cook’s green light now clears the way for Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s confirmation to a second term at the helm of the country’s most powerful financial institution.

A researcher focused on how discrimination has harmed the American economy and the damage downturns do to the poor, Cook is expected to bring a new perspective to the Fed.

She is the daughter of a Baptist chaplain and a professor of nursing, and bears physical scars from racism after she was attacked as a young child while involved in an effort to integrate racially segregated schools in the southern state of Georgia.

As an adult she has dedicated much of her research to previously unmeasured economic damage from discrimination on the productive capacity of the world’s largest economy.

Cook was one of President Joe Biden’s picks to fill open seats on the Fed’s seven-member Board of Governors, along with Philip Jefferson of Davidson College, who would be the fourth Black man to serve on the body.

But her confirmation was delayed in late April when Covid infections among Democratic senators allowed Republicans to block the vote on her nomination.

Critics say Biden’s choices would politicize the Fed’s stewardship of the economy at a critical time, with inflation at a 40-year high and millions of jobs lost during the Covid-19 pandemic still missing.

Others, including conservative political commentator George Will, have questioned Cook’s credentials.

But central bank watchers dismiss those concerns as racially motivated.

Addressing the skyrocketing inflation “starts with the Federal Reserve,” Biden said Tuesday, a few hours before the vote. “I put forward highly qualified nominees to lead that institution, and I strongly urge the Senate to confirm them without delay.”

Focus on development, discrimination 

Cook is a professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University, and earned an economics degree from Oxford University and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley.

She speaks five languages, including Russian, and also specializes in international development economics, having worked on topics such as Rwanda’s recovery following the 1994 genocide.

“That experience convinced me of the enormous responsibility economists have,” she said in a video on her university’s website, where she highlights her focus on non-traditional data sources.

“It is absolutely vital to ask the right questions and to seek the right data.”

Cook also has studied lynchings and patents issued to Black entrepreneurs, arguing that discrimination has held back the entire society, not just the direct victims of the injustice.

Powell, who is also awaiting confirmation after Biden nominated him to a second term, has repeatedly stressed the importance of ensuring economic opportunities extend to disadvantaged groups — a notable change of focus in an economy where Black workers face far higher unemployment rates than other racial groups.

A Republican, Powell enjoys broad bipartisan support for his nomination. He is still leading the central bank, but his term officially expired February 4.

The protracted confirmation process for Cook delayed the Senate vote for Powell, because Democrats had wanted to vote on Cook first.

Jefferson is also still awaiting confirmation. If his nomination is approved, it would be the first time the Fed board has had more than one Black governor.

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