Honoring William Edward Spriggs - 2023 Cook Center Career Achievement Award
The Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity recognizes William Edward Spriggs (1955-2023) as the first recipient of the Cook Center’s Career Achievement Award. Spriggs, who completed his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1984, always believed –and lived out the belief unswervingly—social science inquiry must be directed to the public good. An unabashed proponent of workers’ rights and racial justice, he never drew a line between rigorous scholarship and policy advocacy. In fact, he always believed that meticulous research and wise social action must inform one another in reciprocal fashion.
The intersection of scholarship and advocacy is well represented by the fact, at the close of his life, he simultaneously held positions as Professor of Economics at Howard University and chief economist for the labor federation, the AFL-CIO. Deeply committed to the mission of HBCUs, prior to joining the faculty at Howard, Spriggs taught economics at North Carolina A&T State University and Norfolk State University.
Before becoming chief economist for the AFL-CIO, Spriggs’ record of public policymaking engagement already was exemplary. In the early 1990s he worked with the Economic Policy Institute, leaving in 1993 to serve as the director designate of the National Commission for Employment Policy in the Clinton administration. Subsequently, he served as a senior economist for the Joint Economic Committee. In 1998, he began a tenure as the executive director of the Institute for Opportunity and Equality League. During the Obama administration, Spriggs was appointed as assistant secretary of policy in the Department of Labor.
Spriggs’ research activity spanned the subject areas of anti-black labor market discrimination, worker safety and compensation standards, the impact of minimum wage laws, the black-white unemployment rate gap, and the comparative benefits for black students from attending a HBCU versus a PWI. He was well known as the go-to media expert for analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly reports on American unemployment. His work, in the mid-1990s, refuting the claim that inclusion of Armed Forces Qualifying Test Scores in the analysis eliminated evidence of anti-black employment discrimination was of signal importance in restoring the case for sustaining and improving anti-discrimination measures.
His Ph.D. dissertation at Wisconsin, a study of obstacles to black wealth accumulation based upon archival research on property ownership in Virginia during the early 20th century, received the 1985 best dissertation award from the National Economic Association. In 2000, he would serve as president of the organization.
Spriggs’ final major project was his service as member of the team providing advice to the California Reparations Task Force on how best to assign monetary values to the harms and damages incurred by black Californians due to racism in the state. His thoughtful deliberation and keen insight was essential to the development of the suggestions the advisory team put forward to the Task Force.
Perhaps William Spriggs’ most important attribute as a scholar-activist was his courage. He never would compromise his position on issues for the sake of professional advancement. Integrity, for him, required the strength to bear the costs of departing from sheer careerism to say what needs to be said. In this context, his powerful open letter to the economics profession in that aftermath of George Floyd’s murder must be mentioned. In the letter, Spriggs indicted white supremacy in the economics profession, including the tendency of white economists to continue to assume, despite his own work in the 1990s, employment discrimination cannot persist, to implicitly or explicitly assume black inferiority, and to ignore and/or fail to cite the work of black economists altogether.
With deep conviction and dedication to the use of economics as an instrument to serve in the public interest, William Spriggs is both an aspirational and an inspirational figure for us all.