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Forging a Laboring RaceThe African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination$
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Paul R.D. Lawrie

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781479857326

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479857326.001.0001

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Mortality as the Life Story of a People

Mortality as the Life Story of a People

Frederick L. Hoffman and Actuarial Narratives of African American Extinction, 1896–1915

(p.13) 1 Mortality as the Life Story of a People
Forging a Laboring Race

Paul R. D. Lawrie

NYU Press

Chapter One examines the efforts of Frederick L. Hoffman -a statistician with Prudential Life Insurance-to chart African American proletarianization through actuarial science in turn of the century America. In works such as “Vital Statistics of the Negro” (1892) and the seminal “Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro” (1896), Hoffman provided a statistical rationale for elite anxieties regarding blacks transition from bonded to contract labor. Hoffman charted this transition through the respective metrics of crime, race mixing and the broadly defined ‘vital capacity’ (a measure of respiratory health). With the rise of corporate industrial insurance the metric of health –or lack thereof- became a key commodity of progressive era political economy. Positing mortality as the primary marker of racial health, actuaries conflated evolutionary theory and industrial management to quantify and monetize shifts in political economy through the rhetoric of race suicide. Hoffman’s narratives of race suicide reconstituted the diseased and dying black body as a cautionary tale to the perils of black advancement. The desire to maintain the hierarchies of white supremacy amidst the forces of rapid industrialization, urbanization and mass culture made the figure of the ‘vanishing Negro’ an imperative of turn of the century American political economy.

Keywords:   African American, proletarianization, actuarial science, race suicide, statistics

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