MAXWELL:  Insurance bias has more sinister side

5/3/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


For as long as I can remember, black people have tried to tell insurance watchdogs that some companies were charging white customers one rate for burial insurance and black customers another.

In Florida, this racist practice was discontinued only a few weeks ago, when Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson issued a cease-and-desist order.

According to the Wall Street Journal, white agents throughout the South, who went door-to-door, were given two books, with two different sets of premiums. When James D. Crane went to work for Independent Life & Accident Insurance Co. in 1964, for example, his district manager in Gadsden, Ala., held up two books and said: “You write the white people out of this and the niggers out of this.” The black rate was 25 percent higher than that of whites.

When someone died, many survivors discovered less than $100 in the accounts, even though they had made payments for decades. Many of my Florida relatives are victims of this system.

The untold story behind this evil, however, did not involve policies. This story is one of human degradation, disrespect and the intentional cruelty of powerful men. In Putnam County, my grandparents had the typical white insurance agent. He cheated these two old people until the day each died. On the first Thursday night of each month, the agent, resembling Ichabod Crane with a crew cut, would knock on the front door, but he would let himself in. Invariably, he arrived while we ate supper. He addressed my grandparents as “Robert” and “Lillie Mae” _ although they were more than 25 years his senior.

He would set his stuffed grip in a chair at the dining table, and, uninvited, march into the kitchen and hog our food. My grandparents would not look at me while the agent banged pot lids and smacked his lips. All the while, he would call out things such as “Best collards in town, Lillie Mae.” And,”Nobody can smother pork chops like you, ol’ gal.”

After eating, he never thanked my grandparents. He collected his money from the long brown envelope outside the front door, belched and drove away until next time.

The experience always left me angry and feeling abused. I despised this ugly little white man and wanted to snap his neck in two. A few weeks before I went away to college, I told the agent that he had no right to barge in and eat out of our pots. “No Negro could do that in your house,” I said. Offended, he turned red, gestured for my grandmother to follow him outside, saying, “Let me tell you something, Lillie Mae.”

The front door slammed behind them. My grandfather sat motionless, head down, staring at his plate. Minutes later, my grandmother returned, her eyes showing the pain of a lifetime of bowing and scraping to survive in the white man’s South. “Don’t never say nothing else to that Cracker,” my grandmother said.

“He should call you Mrs. Bentley, and he should respect you,” I said, regretting that I had confronted the man at all.

When my grandmother lifted her face, I sensed that she had salvaged dignity from her belief in God and her faith in a better world beyond “this life,” as she called it. From that day on, the agent never ate out of our pots. And I was careful to be away when he arrived.

My grandparents’ abuse did not compare with the horror that several other families in the county suffered. These families had attractive girls, who bore at least one mulatto. Everyone suspected who the fathers were: white insurance agents who used their power to bed the girls.

The fair-skinned, straight-haired children of these unions _ often called “policy freaks” and “insurance babies” _ were scorned by many of their schoolmates and their parents. Over the years, other girls had such children. One girl had three boys by her agent, the first when she was 14, the last at 18. She dropped out of school and went on welfare. From fear of ridicule, local black men would have nothing to do with her. She left town several years later. No one I know has heard from the family since.

As a black male, I, like other black people, have had many opportunities to forgive white people for their acts of racism and violence. But I cannot _ and will not _ forgive the white insurance agents of my youth who preyed on the innocent, the weak and the ignorant.

I cannot forgive the insurance companies’ two-book system _ one for whites and one for “niggers.” My contempt for these men is as strong as ever. Commissioner Nelson estimates that in Florida alone, nearly 100,000 of these race-based policies were written. No one knows, though, how many black teenagers these evil agents impregnated.

All decent white people throughout the South should be ashamed of this legacy.