William E. Spriggs, who spent a four-decade career in economics working to eradicate racial injustice in society and in his profession, died Tuesday in Reston, Virginia. He was 68 years old.
AFL-CIO, whose Dr. Spriggs chief economist for more than a decade, announced his death. His wife of 38 years, Jennifer Spriggs, said the cause was a stroke.
Dr. One of the most prominent black economists of his generation, Spriggs served as Deputy Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration and held other public sector roles earlier in his career. However, he is most famous for his work outside of government as an outspoken and often quoted advocate for workers, especially black workers.
In addition to his role in the Washington-based AFL-CIO, he was a professor at Howard University, where he mentored a generation of black economists while pushing for change in a field dominated by white males.
“Bill was someone who was deeply committed to the idea that we do economics because we have a social purpose,” William A. Darity Jr., a Duke University economist and longtime friend, said in a telephone interview. “That this is not a discipline that should be deployed just to play social games, and that we should use the ideas that we have developed from economics to design social policies that will make the lives of most people much better.”
Dr. Spriggs worked on a variety of issues, including trade, education, the minimum wage, and social security. But the topic he returned to most often and spoke most passionately about was racial disparities in the labor market. Again and again, he pointed to black Americans consistently experiencing unemployment at twice the rate of whites—a troubling fact that he says receives too little attention among economists.
“Economists have tried to rationalize this difference by saying that it merely reflects differences in skill levels,” wrote Dr. Spriggs opinion piece in The New York Times in 2021, before dismissing that claim with a striking statistic: The unemployment rate for white high school dropouts is almost always lower than the unemployment rate for blacks overall.
During the nationwide racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd in 2020, Dr. Spriggs open letter to his fellow economists, who was sharply critical of the field’s approach to race—not only because of its widely documented failure to recruit and retain black economists, but also in economic research.
“Modern economics has deep and painful roots that too few economists recognize,” wrote Dr. Spriggs. “In the hands of too many economists, the assumption remains that African Americans are inferior until proven otherwise.”
Biden administration officials said the appointment of Dr. They discussed Spriggs for leading positions in the area of economic policy already this year. Ultimately, he stayed on the outside, nudging administrations in both the public and private sectors not to back down on their commitment to a strong economic recovery. In recent months, he has been a vocal critic of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive efforts to tame inflation, which Dr. Spriggs warned that it would disproportionately harm black workers.
“Bill was a towering figure in his field, a pioneer who challenged the field’s basic assumptions about racial discrimination in labor markets, pay equity and worker empowerment,” President Biden said. he said in a statement on Wednesday.
William Edward Spriggs was born on April 8, 1955 in Washington to Thurman and Julienne (Henderson) Spriggs. He was bred there and in Virginia. His father served as a fighter pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and then became a professor of physics at Norfolk State University in Virginia and Howard in Washington, both historically black institutions.
His mother was also a veteran and became a Norfolk public school teacher after earning her college degree while her son was in elementary school.
“I remember how we studied history together,” recalled Dr. Spriggs on his mother in the White House blog post he wrote when he was at the Department of Labor. “She looked at children’s books about the subjects she was learning about.
Dr. Spriggs earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Williams College in Massachusetts and attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a master’s degree in 1979 and a doctorate in economics in 1984. In graduate school, he served as co-president of the graduate student teachers union and helped rebuild it after a largely unsuccessful strike the previous year.
Dr. Spriggs stood out at Wisconsin, and not just because he was the only black graduate student in the economics department, recalled Lawrence Mishel, a classmate who later became president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, where Dr. Spriggs also worked for several years.
Even as a graduate student, said Dr. Mishel, Mr. Spriggs was skeptical of the orthodox theories his professors taught about how companies set employee wages—theories that left no room for discrimination or other forces outside of supply and demand. And unlike most students, Mr. Spriggs wasn’t interested in working for a top school where he could find a job; he wanted to work for a historically black institution like his father had.
He got his wish, teaching first at North Carolina State Agricultural and Technical University in Greensboro and then at Norfolk State University—where his father also worked—before taking a series of jobs in government and left-leaning think tanks. He returned to academia in 2005 when he joined Howard. In the years 2005 to 2009, he was the chairman of its economic department.
In addition to his wife, whom he met in graduate school, his survivors include their son, William; and two sisters, Patricia Spriggs and Karen Baldwin.
Dr. Spriggs influenced the careers of dozens of younger economists.
“Without Bill Spriggs, I would not be an economist today,” said Valerie Wilson, director A program on race, ethnicity and the economy at the Institute of Economic Policy.
Dr. Wilson was taking a break from graduate school and was considering leaving the field altogether when one of her professors recommended her to work for Dr. Spriggs in the National Urban League. He helped rekindle her passion for economics by showing her an approach to work that was less theoretical and more real-world, she said. After two years at the Urban League, Dr. Spriggs that he is returning to graduate school.
His response: “We need you in the profession.”
Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.