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"A Vanishing Race”: Frederick Hoffman and Actuarial Narratives of Black Racial Fitness

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Abstract:

This paper will analyze one of the primary methods; (statistics), mediums; (industrial insurance) and practitioners; (Frederick Hoffman) through which narratives of black degeneration were constructed in turn of the century America. According to the political scientist Brian Glenn, “insures or actuaries can rate risks in many different ways depending on the stories they tell about which characteristics are important and which are not”. Indeed “almost every aspect of the insurance industry is predicated on stories first, then numbers”. Yet these ‘stories’ often adhere to stereotypes and social divisions-such as race- “which although often irrelevant to predicting actual losses” form powerful social narratives. White dominance over the statistical discipline and the insurance industry ensured that this process resulted in the continued exploitation and devaluing of black bodies. The early career of Frederick L. Hoffman an actuary, and statistician at the Prudential Life Insurance Company reveals key insights into the ways in which progressive ‘expertise’ sought to better understand shifting social identities and ideologies in the new South.
Despite innumerable socio-economic impediments blacks sought to contest this discourse.
Black owned insurance companies were some of the first institutions in the New South to better
the race through the acquisition of both financial and social capital. Generally ignored by
historians working on progressive era issues of labor and race, an analysis of the epistemological
roots of insurance reveals how progressives perceived relationships between ‘expertise’, the
body, work and capital. Actuarial narratives sought to determine what constituted a healthy body
and which bodies could do which kind of work. Informed by the recent bodily turn in humanities
scholarship this paper brings together African-American, labor and disability history to examine how the
language and practice of actuarial science built a body of social knowledge concerned with racial
fitness and work. Actuarial methods of evaluation and the transposing of ‘real’ bodies into abstract
statistical models, represented a key example of the contentious nature of race-making in a
specific time and place.
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Association:
Name: 95th Annual Convention
URL:
http://www.asalh.org


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435059_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Lawrie, Paul. ""A Vanishing Race”: Frederick Hoffman and Actuarial Narratives of Black Racial Fitness" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina, <Not Available>. 2014-11-27 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435059_index.html>

APA Citation:

Lawrie, P. R. ""A Vanishing Race”: Frederick Hoffman and Actuarial Narratives of Black Racial Fitness" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina <Not Available>. 2014-11-27 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435059_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: This paper will analyze one of the primary methods; (statistics), mediums; (industrial insurance) and practitioners; (Frederick Hoffman) through which narratives of black degeneration were constructed in turn of the century America. According to the political scientist Brian Glenn, “insures or actuaries can rate risks in many different ways depending on the stories they tell about which characteristics are important and which are not”. Indeed “almost every aspect of the insurance industry is predicated on stories first, then numbers”. Yet these ‘stories’ often adhere to stereotypes and social divisions-such as race- “which although often irrelevant to predicting actual losses” form powerful social narratives. White dominance over the statistical discipline and the insurance industry ensured that this process resulted in the continued exploitation and devaluing of black bodies. The early career of Frederick L. Hoffman an actuary, and statistician at the Prudential Life Insurance Company reveals key insights into the ways in which progressive ‘expertise’ sought to better understand shifting social identities and ideologies in the new South.
Despite innumerable socio-economic impediments blacks sought to contest this discourse.
Black owned insurance companies were some of the first institutions in the New South to better
the race through the acquisition of both financial and social capital. Generally ignored by
historians working on progressive era issues of labor and race, an analysis of the epistemological
roots of insurance reveals how progressives perceived relationships between ‘expertise’, the
body, work and capital. Actuarial narratives sought to determine what constituted a healthy body
and which bodies could do which kind of work. Informed by the recent bodily turn in humanities
scholarship this paper brings together African-American, labor and disability history to examine how the
language and practice of actuarial science built a body of social knowledge concerned with racial
fitness and work. Actuarial methods of evaluation and the transposing of ‘real’ bodies into abstract
statistical models, represented a key example of the contentious nature of race-making in a
specific time and place.


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