William Spriggs, the prominent chief economist of the AFL-CIO and a vocal critic of the profession’s approach to racial disparities in the United States, has died.
The death of Spriggs, 68, on July 6 was announced by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Spriggs, who also served as a professor at Howard University, emerged as one of the most influential Black voices in the field and fearlessly confronted his colleagues about their handling of racial issues.
President Joe Biden expressed his deep sorrow at the loss of Bill Spriggs, praising him as a remarkable figure who contributed lasting brilliance to economics and brought joy to his friends and colleagues.
In a statement, Biden said, “Bill was a towering figure in his field, a trailblazer who challenged the field’s basic assumptions about racial discrimination in labor markets, pay equity, and worker empowerment. His work inspired countless economists, some of whom work for our administration, to join him in the pursuit of economic justice.”
Spriggs, who held the positions of economics department chair at Howard University and chief economist for the AFL-CIO, was the first Black American to occupy the latter role.
Throughout his career, he tirelessly fought to ensure that the voices and needs of workers remained central to economic policymaking.
Biden emphasized Spriggs’ dedication to public service, noting that he held multiple economic policy positions under two presidential administrations in various federal government roles.
The president acknowledged Spriggs’ exceptional contributions and achievements and remembered him for his kindness, warmth, and humility.
In 2020, following the tragic death of George Floyd, Spriggs penned an open letter to economists, cautioning that their methodologies were perpetuating the very issues they sought to address.
He urged them to reflect and reconsider their approach to studying racial disparities.
In more recent years, Spriggs, known as Bill to many, also voiced criticism of the Federal Reserve, arguing that aggressive monetary tightening would disproportionately harm Black workers without tackling the underlying causes of inflation.
Spriggs served as an adviser to the Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, established in 2017 to examine economic disparities.
Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Fed, expressed his gratitude for Spriggs’ time and insights.
He highlighted his valuable contributions in shaping their understanding of labor markets, economic opportunity, racial wealth gaps, and other critical issues.
Kashkari acknowledged that Spriggs fearlessly voiced his concerns when he believed they were heading in the wrong direction, fostering robust yet respectful debates.
William Edward Spriggs was born in Washington, D.C., on April 8, 1955.
His father, a Tuskegee Airman and a physicist with a doctorate, and his mother, a World War II veteran and schoolteacher, played influential roles in his upbringing, as described in a blog post Spriggs authored in 2011.
He attended Williams College for his undergraduate studies before pursuing a master’s and doctorate in economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
From 2009 to 2012, under President Obama, Spriggs served as an assistant policy secretary at the U.S. Labor Department.
In 2005, he began his tenure as an economics professor at Howard University and later joined the AFL-CIO in 2012, a federation of labor unions representing 12.5 million workers.
Spriggs was widely recognized as a mentor and ally to numerous young Black economists.
Michelle Holder, an associate professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York, shared her experience, stating that Spriggs was among the first to extend support and connect her with a community of Black economists when she entered academia.
Holder emphasized to Bloomberg News that Spriggs’ motivation stemmed from believing that when Black individuals succeed and thrive, it benefits the nation.
“To me, his legacy was really about making a stronger country by ensuring that Black people weren’t left behind,” she said.