Abstract: Practices and Discourses of Racial Discrimination in the American Life Insurance Industry

Pap Ndiaye


My paper focuses on the ways the US life insurance industry constructed intellectual representations of mortality in the United States. More specifically, I try to show how the concept of mortality as understood by actuaries came to be closely associated with race, and how practices of discrimination came to be standard in the life insurance industry. Starting in the late nineteenth century, life insurance actuaries and statisticians became self-proclaimed experts on racial issues. These experts sought to legitimize the discriminatory business policies of their firms, but they also pretended to make universal, that is scientific claims about race, in order to reach some kind of broad intellectual and social legitimacy. The purpose of my paper is to analyze the discourses and practices of discrimination in the US life insurance industry. My claim is that death, as objectified by life insurance, came to be a defining notion in the development of modern ideologies about race. Mortality and length expectancy came to be intrinsic characteristics associated with racial categories, which had deep consequences for the way in which institutions, including public health and medicine, would perceive social groups in the twentieth century.