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  • Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination by Paul R. D. Lawrie
  • Steven A. Reich
Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination
Paul R. D. Lawrie
New York: New York University Press, 2016
xi + 231 pp., $50.00 (cloth); $25.00 (paper)

Paul R. D. Lawrie examines how Progressive–era management experts, social scientists, and administrators in private and public agencies drew conclusions about race and the fitness of African Americans for certain kinds of work. These pioneers in the fields of actuarial science, statistics, eugenics, sociology, anthropometry, anthropology, and intelligence testing conducted hundreds of experiments and studies producing "a wealth of social scientific racial knowledge" (10), which they drew upon to conclude that black workers and soldiers were a diseased, dirty, unskilled, hypersexualized, and disabled people. Ultimately, Lawrie draws our attention to how the authority of their ideas about race informed decision makers across the bureaucracies of the modern industrial nation-state.

Much of the book introduces readers to the architects of these ideas and the institutions for which they worked. Frederick L. Hoffman, an actuary and statistician at Prudential Life Insurance Company, published a number of influential tracts in the late nineteenth century that portrayed black people as a "depraved race destined for extinction" (7) and thus unprofitable as insurance risks. Hoffman's work provided the empirical evidence that the country's major insurers used—well into the 1940s—to justify their refusal to sell life insurance to black people. American mobilization for World War I inspired a new generation of experts who looked to the wartime state for solutions to the so-called Negro problem. Investigators in the Department of Negro Economics (DNE), for example, pursued a series of strategies to incorporate black migrant workers into the wartime labor economy. Social scientists working at the Committee of Anthropology, a division of the National Research Council, drew upon the science of anthropometry and intelligence testing to evaluate the health and fitness of black draftees. Theories of scientific management and eugenics informed how officials in the Federal Board of Vocational Education debated whether wounded black veterans could or should be rehabilitated. Although wartime managerial elites increasingly adopted culturalist rather than biological explanations of racial difference, Lawrie argues that they nevertheless continued to regard African Americans as inferior, even pathological. Consequently, the American Expeditionary Force confined a majority of black recruits to labor and supply battalions. Occupational therapists in the Veterans Bureau rejected black veterans' claims that they, as soldiers and citizens, had a right to rehabilitation. Instead, they offered only palliative care that confined injured black veterans to the margins of the postwar industrial labor economy. Even the black officials in the DNE, influenced as many of them were by Chicago School of Sociology theories of migration, Lawrie explains, never developed a critique of the industrial labor economy and were quick to assume that alliances with white industrial employers offered black workers the best path to a prosperous industrial future. [End Page 112]

Lawrie has an important story to tell. He draws upon recent scholarly interest in eugenics and disability studies to demonstrate how elite ideas about race, labor, and social fitness flowed from concrete social experiments conducted with the funding and blessing of those who occupied the halls of power. His evidence reveals the often toxic combination of fealty to science and state building. Lawrie's story also contrasts with the views of those historians who see World War I as a watershed in African American history. Despite the significance of migration north, the emergence of a "new crowd" of political strategists, and the expansion of labor and civil rights activism in the war years, Lawrie reminds us, African Americans had few allies in the federal government willing to use the authority of the state to improve the lives of black working people. They acted to thwart the aspirations and demands of black people, and in the course of doing so they invented new ideas and rationales to perpetuate racial subordination. Lawrie's book thus comes as an important note of caution to progressives today who place their faith in a political future based on predictions...


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pp. 112-114
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