Mary L. Heen


his Article tells the story of the rise and fall of explicit race-based pricing practices as American life insurance companies responded to changes in the social, economic, and legal status of former slaves. The role of law in that story, from the Civil War to the beginning of this century, illustrates the complex interaction between civil rights reform and private commercial markets. Despite early laws prohibiting race-based life insurance rates, racial discrimination persisted in various forms for over a century due to the strength of the underlying racial ideologies, the rhetorical power of actuarial language, and the structure and regulation of insurance markets. Life insurance companies reinforced prevailing American assumptions about race by adopting explicit race-based pricing categories after Reconstruction, and later, by prospectively abandoning them beginning after World War II. Earlier this century, regulatory investigations and litigation under post-Civil War federal civil rights statutes brought relief to those harmed by the continuing effects of dual rate structures in race-segmented markets. Civil rights law thus served primarily as prologue, by provoking company adaptation, and as epilogue, by providing retrospective relief, to the central story of that transformation.