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  • Calculating Race: Racial Discrimination in Risk Assessment by Benjamin Wiggins
  • Michael F. Mcgovern (bio)
Calculating Race: Racial Discrimination in Risk Assessment By Benjamin Wiggins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 160.

Calculating Race: Racial Discrimination in Risk Assessment By Benjamin Wiggins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 160.

In the past decade, the historical study of risk has flourished. Scholars have explored, in various contexts, how this unstable cultural category becomes embedded within technologies of valuation, prediction, and crucially, discrimination. Yet, as Benjamin Wiggins points out at the outset of Calculating Race, no account has treated the use of race as a variable across different domains of actuarial science in a sustained fashion. Using three historical case studies—life insurance at Prudential, parole and sentencing in the Illinois state penitentiary system, and mortgage insurance through the United States Federal Housing Administration—Wiggins highlights the different ways that race has been explicitly and implicitly used to calculate risk, setting the stage for a discussion of the "proxy" variables in use throughout private and public institutions today. The book's merit lies not in its treatment of any one of these topics, but rather in crafting a synthetic "history of a system of thought" (p. 7). In 101 brisk pages of primary text, Calculating Race presents nuanced analyses of particular sources, supported by concise summaries of ongoing debates within different specialist literatures.

The book is divided into four chronological chapters. "Life" tells the story of how U.S. life insurance firms calculated differential rates based on race and sought to insulate their practices from regulation and antidiscrimination legislation by promoting racial science, building on prior work on actuarial knowledge, eugenics, and the boundaries of social belonging in the Progressive Era. "Crime" details how Illinois blended the system of individualized criminal data developed by French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon with group-based predictive formulas to determine sentencing and parole. Invoking scholarship on the racialization of crime statistics and the stigmatizing effects of accumulated data, Wiggins shows how these calculations reinforced ideas about Black criminality. Turning [End Page 894] to the United States Federal Housing Administration's notorious redlining practices, "Home" provides a nuanced discussion of the underwriting manuals that made risk assessment—using neighborhood as a proxy for race—the dominant form of valuation in mortgage lending. It expands upon a long-standing dialogue among urban historians about the institutionalization of housing discrimination.

The final chapter "Proxies" is billed as "a novel trajectory in historical scholarship… made retroactively possible only through field-altering work on algorithmic bias from statisticians and computer scientists" (p. 6). It promises to follow the threads of these case studies into contemporary big data practices using this novel analytical toolkit developed by algorithmic fairness researchers; however, the narrative gets lost when it cuts from the 1960s to the present, largely skipping over the post-civil rights era and the rise of digital computing. Citing a lack of archival material from private firms, Wiggins opts for the well-trodden path of "risk society" scholarship to characterize this period of contradiction. The chapter summarizes recent investigations into the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in automated systems, including the aforementioned "field-altering" research, without fulfilling the promise of applying its insights or methods to enrich historical understanding.

The ambitions of this well-conceived book are hampered by its brevity. One wonders why it has little to say about the actuarial practices of chattel slavery—a focus of the "new history of capitalism" with which it is in dialogue—especially since the book opens with a slave uprising. Moreover, it is curious for a brusque history of racial thinking to arrive three-quarters of the way into a book on racial measurement (p. 80). Perhaps this could have been better incorporated if Wiggins had explicitly developed his sociological framework of "racial formation in the risk society" throughout the text rather than merely providing theoretical bookends (p. 5). Other quibbles are smaller. Francis Galton did not regard people as "Mendelian peas" (p. 35). The author's habit of exhaustively listing statutes banning discriminatory policies in different states without analyzing them adds little to the overall picture (pp. 18, 85). Calculating Race concludes by recounting...