Howard Prof. Bill Spriggs To Economists: Deficiencies Are With Systemic U.S. Policies, Not Black America

Howard Prof. Bill Spriggs To Economists: Deficiencies Are With Systemic U.S. Policies, Not Black America

Howard University Prof. Bill Spriggs to economists: Deficiencies are with systemic U.S. policies, not with Black America. William Spriggs, chief economist for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), attends the Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium, Aug. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/John Locher)

A Howard University economics professor is calling on his profession to reexamine how it views Black people and the country’s economic issues.

Prof. William “Bill” Spriggs says the field of economics needs an overhaul. With the country shaken by protests over police brutality and racism, there has been a call for economists to not only explain but to help solve the racial wealth gap in the U.S. 

There has been some response by the field. Earlier this month, the American Economic Association released a statement that read in part, “We recognize that we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.”

Spriggs is the chief economist at the AFL-CIO — the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. It’s the largest federation of unions in the U.S. and consists of 55 national and international unions representing more than 12 million active and retired workers.

Recently, Spriggs wrote an open letter asking his fellow economists to consider some of the ways that economics itself is racist.

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“Modern economics has a deep and painful set of roots that too few economists acknowledge,” Spriggs wrote in the letter. “The founding leadership of the American Economic Association deeply and fervently provided ‘scientific’ succor to the American eugenics movement. Their concept of race and human interaction was based on the ‘racial’ superiority of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And they launched modern economics with a definition of race that fully incorporated the assumed superiority of that group and bought into a notion of race as an exogenous variable.

“The overwhelming majority of explorations of racial disparities in economic outcomes remains deeply tied to that view of race as an exogenous variable. And in the hands of far too many economists, it remains with the assumption that African Americans are inferior until proven otherwise.”

Spriggs also addressed the “constant micro-aggression that African American economists endure at every meeting, and in reading every paper, and in reading every reviewer’s comments.”

Changes need to be made, because the methods economists work with are slanted, Spriggs wrote.

“Too many economists are great at excusing themselves when policies they propose exacerbate racial disadvantages because of that world view,” he wrote.

“Among the kinder economists, the ‘deficiency’ in African Americans is caused by systemic policies that disadvantage Black people’s participation in the economy as equals. This requires real contortions because it proclaims that there is a set of actors who have devised rules to prevent African Americans from adequate schooling (this is the primary claim), mostly through housing segregation and, depending on the economist, some learned or absorbed frustration on the part of African Americans that compounds their disadvantage.”

He continued, “That is a difficult model to accept, because it means these actors who act with animus direct all their efforts at human capital accumulation but then act objectively in all of their other interactions with African Americans.”

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Spriggs discussed further how racism is at play in the world of economics in an interview with Marketplace‘s host Kai Ryssdal. 

For too long, economists have dodged the issue of racism and discrimination,” he told Marketplace. “Our built-in instinct is that discrimination does not exist. And economists don’t want to admit the history of race at the founding of modern economics at the beginning of the 20th century. And implicit in our models ends up being an assumption that somehow or another, in some way or fashion, African Americans are inferior. Now, to the polite economist, the deficiency model typically is ‘bad school, bad neighborhoods and residential segregation. These are all bad things. The strain to make sure that there’s no agency, that there’s no one who’s actually discriminating in that model, though, just makes your eyes roll.”

Spriggs’s economic focus is on workforce issues, labor, tax, and public policy. Prior to his position at AFL-CIO, he led economic policy development at several think tanks such as the Economic Policy Institute and the National Urban League. He has also held roles at the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, and the Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, Fortune reported. He has been teaching at Howard since 2005.