William Spriggs, a prominent Black economist who criticized how his field treated racial disparities and was an advisor to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, died late Tuesday in Washington.
He was a professor and former chair of the economics department at Howard University, served advisory posts for Congress and the Federal Reserve and was an assistant secretary in the Labor Department during the Obama administration. Most recently, he was chief economist of the AFL-CIO.
Spriggs was 68 years old. The AFL-CIO did not give a cause of death.
Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Fed, called Spriggs a "brilliant economist" and "tireless advocate for working people."
He noted Spriggs participated in numerous conferences the bank convened and influenced Kashkari's thinking on labor markets, economic opportunity, racial wealth gaps and other issues. He was also a mentor and friend to many at the Minneapolis Fed.
"Never one to hold back, Bill told us when he thought we were going in the wrong direction, and those debates were always robust but respectful," Kashkari said in a statement.
Six years ago, Spriggs became an advisor to the Minneapolis Fed as it created the Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute to study economic disparities. He remained involved until his death.
"He was always incredibly generous, but he was also very careful to really ask people to pull back the layers of why they thought they knew what they thought they knew," said Abigail Wozniak, the institute's director.
Spriggs last visited the institute in November despite being in poor health. The comments he made at the event have lingered with the scholars and economists who were there, she added.
She also expressed anger the economics profession didn't better recognize Spriggs before he died.
Spriggs influenced many younger economists of color.
Illenin Kondo, a senior research economist at the Minneapolis Fed, said Spriggs helped him understand why being a Black economist is important.
"When I think of Bill, I'm also sad because he's someone who throughout this work and his life has chosen to embrace the forum that chose to ignore his voice," Kondo said.
Following the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Fed published a letter Spriggs wrote to the economics community that criticized it for being slow to recognize the effects of racism.
"Hopefully, this moment will cause economists to reflect and rethink how we study racial disparities," Spriggs wrote. "Trapped in the dominant conversation, far too often African American economists find themselves having to prove that African Americans are equal. We find ourselves, as so often happens in these ugly police cases, having to prove that acts of discrimination are exactly that: discrimination."
At a Federal Reserve conference in 2021, Spriggs expanded on his view that for far too long, economists assumed race did not affect individual outcomes.
"There appears to be no evidence that will get economists to admit: Yes, there's discrimination, and yes, it matters," he said at the conference.
In recent months, Spriggs argued the Fed's policymakers should be more cautious about raising interest rates, which he believed would lead to job losses. Full employment, he long argued, was especially good for Black workers.
"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," President Joe Biden said in a statement. "His work inspired countless economists, some of whom work for our administration, to join him in the pursuit of economic justice."
Spriggs graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts and held a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.