Racial Inequality in the Prime of Life: Infectious Disease Mortality in U.S. Cities, 1906-1933

Joint with Aja Antoine-Jones, Lauren Hoehn-Velasco, Christopher Muller, and Elizabeth Wrigley-Field

Accepted, Social Science History


In the first half of the twentieth century, deaths from infectious disease, especially among the very young, fell dramatically in American cities. However, as infant mortality fell and life expectancy rose, racial inequality in urban infectious disease mortality grew. In this paper, we show that the fall in mortality and the rise in racial inequality in mortality reflected two countervailing processes. The dramatic decline in infant mortality from waterborne diseases drastically reduced the total urban infectious disease mortality rate of both Black and white Americans while having a comparatively small effect on the total racial disparity in urban infectious disease mortality. In contrast, the unequal fall in tuberculosis mortality, particularly in the prime of life, widened racial inequality in infectious disease mortality in US cities.