By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Dr. William E. Spriggs, who once taught at Norfolk State University – where his father, a former Tuskegee Airman taught physics – recently died from a stroke at age 68 in Reston, Va.
The prominent Black economist taught six years at Norfolk State University, two years at North Carolina A&T State University, and also served as a professor and mentor at Howard University.
From 2009-2012, Spriggs served as an assistant secretary of labor in the Obama administration. He also accepted a series of jobs in government and left-leaning think tanks.
The A.F.L.-C.I.O., for which Dr. Spriggs had been chief economist for more than a decade, announced his death. Survivors include his wife of 38 years, Jennifer Spriggs, as well as a son, William; and two sisters, Patricia Spriggs and Karen Baldwin.
His parents had the greatest impact on his life. “I remember studying history together,” Spriggs said of his parents, Thurman and Julienne (Henderson) Spriggs. His World War II veteran father relocated from Norfolk to Washington, D.C., and later taught at Howard University. His mother, also a veteran, was a public-school teacher in Norfolk.
As a Black economist, Spriggs’ research tended to focus on racial disparities in the labor market, due to the fact that African-Americans consistently experience unemployment at double the rate of Whites. While this troubling fact receives little attention from economists, a field that employs only a handful of African Americans, Spriggs’ research zeroed in on it.
“Economists have tried to rationalize this disparity by saying it merely reflects differences in skill levels,” Dr. Spriggs wrote in a 2021 opinion article in The New York Times.
“But the skills hypothesis is too strained at this point to be believable: The unemployment rate for White high school dropouts is almost always below that of Black unemployment over all, across all education levels. Why would White people who did not finish high school always have lower unemployment rates than Black people, even as Black people increased their levels of educational attainment?”
Spriggs said, “The misdiagnosis of the past few decades is a dangerous one that we ought not repeat.”
Of his death, President Joe Biden said in a recent statement, “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.”
Spriggs was born on April 8, 1955, in Washington and reared there and in Virginia. He earned his undergraduate degrees at Williams College in Massachusetts. He earned a masters in 1979 and a doctorate in 1984 at the University of Wisconsin. During his lifetime, Spriggs said he taught more than 2,000 African American students economics and statistics at North Carolina A&T State University, Norfolk State University, and Howard.