William E. Spriggs, Economist Who Pushed for Racial Justice, Dies at 68

“Bill was somebody 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 phone interview. “That this is not a discipline that should be deployed just for playing parlor games, and that we should use the ideas that we develop from economics for the design of social policy that will make the lives of most people far better.”

Dr. Spriggs worked on varied issues, including trade, education, the minimum wage and Social Security. But the topic he came back to most frequently, and spoke most passionately about, was that of racial disparities in the labor market. Black Americans, he pointed out time and again, consistently experienced unemployment at double the rate of white people — a troubling fact that he argued got too little attention among economists.

“Economists have tried to rationalize this disparity by saying it merely reflects differences in skill levels,” Dr. Spriggs wrote in an opinion article in The New York Times in 2021, before going on to dismiss that claim with a striking statistic: The unemployment rate for white high school dropouts is almost always below that of overall Black unemployment.

During the nationwide racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd in 2020, Dr. Spriggs wrote an open letter to his fellow economists that was sharply critical of the field’s approach to race — not just in its failure to recruit and retain Black economists, which had been widely documented, but also in economic research.

“Modern economics has a deep and painful set of roots that too few economists acknowledge,” Dr. Spriggs wrote. “In the hands of far too many economists, it remains with the assumption that African Americans are inferior until proven otherwise.”

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