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Remembering trailblazing economist William Spriggs


Let's remember a trailblazer in economics and labor policy, William Spriggs. He was chief economist of the AFL-CIO and a beloved professor at Howard University. He died last week at age 68. A Black man in an industry long dominated by white men, Spriggs challenged his counterparts to rethink their beliefs about racial disparities. Here he was talking to Marketplace after the death of George Floyd.


WILLIAM SPRIGGS: Economists don't want to admit the history of race at the founding of modern economics at the beginning of the 20th century.

RASCOE: William Spriggs' influential career included time at the Labor Department during the Obama administration, and since his death, there's been an outpouring of praise, including from Valerie Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute, who counted Spriggs as a mentor and friend. Welcome to the program.

VALERIE WILSON: Thank you so much, Ayesha.

RASCOE: I wanted to ask you, what made William Spriggs - known as Bill to his friends - so remarkable as an economist and as a person?

WILSON: I think as an economist, what made him so remarkable was his ability to really translate economic concepts into human issues and really doing economics with a purpose and a reason of improving lives. And I think that then, you know, sort of speaks volumes to who he was as a person and just his passion and commitment to making life better for the average worker and making life better for Black Americans specifically.

RASCOE: You said in a statement that you owe your career as an economist to him. How so?

WILSON: Yeah, I make no secrets about that. I mean, it is so clear to me. At the time when I met Bill, I went to work for him as a research analyst. And at that point I was really discouraged, really questioning the choice to go to grad school and get a PhD in economics. I wasn't sure that was for me. That experience in working with him literally convinced me that I should go back and finish. And he said, you need to go back and finish. We need you in the profession.

RASCOE: Talk to me about the work that Spriggs did to diversify the economics profession, because here was someone who was very successful. And as you know, you can be successful and not bring anyone with you. But it doesn't seem like he did that at all.

WILSON: He did not have that view at all. He was like, you know, I should not be the only one. There needs to be more. He gave real meaning to a term that we all like to use now, making space for others. He absolutely made space.

RASCOE: In that clip we played of him, Spriggs was referencing a letter he wrote to colleagues in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. And he wrote in that letter, quote, "In the hands of far too many economists, it remains with the assumption that African Americans are inferior until proven otherwise." What did you think about that letter and his decision to publicly call out his profession?

WILSON: That letter is such a critical statement, an important statement, a powerful statement and a profound statement about the field of economics as it deals with issues of race. I think it really came from his own personal experience over the years and his own experience and understanding the theory that we're taught in economics often does not represent the true experience of Black Americans and other communities of color in this country.

RASCOE: What do you think ultimately will be the professional legacy of William Spriggs?

WILSON: I think his professional legacy will be one where people are willing and are interested in taking on the issue of systemic discrimination, systemic racism. It wasn't just theory. It wasn't just about publishing for Bill Spriggs. It was about really having an impact in this world and bringing about social change.

RASCOE: That's Valerie Wilson. She's the director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute. Thank you so much for being with us and for, you know, telling us about your friend.

WILSON: Thank you so much for having me. And thank you for honoring him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.