Abstract: The Requirements of Risk: Contesting Race Discrimination in the American Life Insurance Industry at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Dan Bouk


This paper explores state-level efforts to ban discrimination by race in the American North at the end of the nineteenth century and shows the long-term consequences of these efforts. Six state legislatures banned race discrimination before the turn of the new century, yet this apparent victory for civil rights advocates proved shallow. Insurer's logic of difference—that differences in risk required discrimination—survived the new legislation and eventually undermined it. The paper argues that insurers in the early twentieth century created new justifications, rooted in science but distinct from traditional scientific racism, for discrimination by race, and in the process built a powerful statistical infrastructure to study the African American population. Life insurers, it demonstrates, became centers for the production of knowledge about race and mortality in America: it was a requirement of risk.