One-drop rule

The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States that holds that a person with any trace of African ancestry is considered black unless having an alternative non-white ancestry which he or she can claim, such as Native American, Asian, Arab, or Australian aboriginal. It developed most strongly out of the binary culture of long years of institutionalized slavery.

This notion of invisible/intangible membership in a racial group has seldom been applied to people of Native American ancestry (see Race in the United States for details). The concept has been chiefly applied to those of black African ancestry. As Langston Hughes wrote, "You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown.

During the Black Pride era of the Civil Rights Movement, the stigma associated with sub-Saharan ancestry was turned to a socio-political advantage.




The one-drop rule was another aspect of the South's hardening segregation that followed the disfranchisement of most blacks and many poor whites from 1890-1910. White-dominated legislatures were then free to enact Jim Crow laws segregating public places and accommodations, and passing other restrictive legislation. Legislatures decided to try to prevent interracial relationships to keep the white race "pure", long after the years when slaveholders' and overseers' taking advantage of enslaved women had produced the most mixed-race children.

The 1910–19 decade was the nadir of the Jim Crow era by most measures. Tennessee adopted a one-drop statute in 1910. It was followed by Louisiana the same year, Texas and Arkansas in 1911, Mississippi in 1917, North Carolina in 1923, Virginia in 1924, Alabama and Georgia in 1927, and Oklahoma in 1931. During this same period, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Utah retained their old "blood fraction" statutes de jure, but amended these fractions (one-sixteenth, one-thirtysecond) to be equivalent to one-drop de facto.

Before 1930, individuals of mixed European and African ancestry were usually classed as mulattoes, sometimes as black and sometimes as white, depending on appearance. States often stopped worrying about ancestry at "the fourth degreee" (3xgreat-grandparents).

Fanatics such as Walter Plecker of Virginia and Naomi Drake of Louisiana insisted on trying to label families of mixed ancestry as Black.

In 1924, Plecker wrote, "Two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher." A subtext to this concept was the assumption that Blacks were somehow "improved" through White intermixture.

Plecker was preceded in his Virginia post by Madison Grant. Another white surpremacist, he wrote in his book The Passing of the Great Race: "The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew. In the case of Native American descendants with whites, the one-drop rule of definition was extended only so far as those with more than one-sixteenth Indian blood, due to what was known as the "Pocahontas exception." The "Pocahontas exception" existed because many influential Virginia families claimed descent from the American Indian Pocahontas of the colonial era. To avoid classifying such people as non-white, the Virginia General Assembly declared that a person could be considered white so long as he or she had no more than one-sixteenth Indian "blood".

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling in the case of Loving v. Virginia, declared Plecker's Virginia Racial Integrity Act unconstitutional, as was its key component, the one-drop rule.

Despite this holding, the one-drop theory retains influence in U.S. society, from both sides of color lines. Multiracial individuals with visible European and African, and/or Native American ancestry are often still considered non-white, unless they explicitly declare themselves white or Anglo. (After the Civil War, some people of mixed ancestry who "looked white" "passed" into the majority white community by not going into detail about their backgrounds.) The Melungeons have been a multiracial community of families that tended to marry "white" and move into majority culture.

Multiracial people are typically identified instead as mixed-race, bi-racial, mulatto or mestizo, or Black or American Indian, for example. By contrast, these standards are widely rejected by America's Latino community, the majority of whom are of mixed ancestry (usually Amerindian and white, but for whom their Latino cultural heritage is more important to their ethnic identities than "race." The one-drop rule is not generally applied to Latinos of mixed origin or to Arab-Americans.

Recent classifications

There are different ways of trying to assess the future of the one-drop rule in the United States. Such an evaluation depends on several factors, including how interracial parents label their children on the decennial U.S. censuses, scholarly opinions, and trends in affirmative action court cases.

From Reconstruction until about 1930, the children of black/white interracial parents and of mulatto parents were usually identified as mulatto. It is becoming increasingly common for people to identify themselves as multi-racial, bi-racial, mulatto or mixed, rather than as black or white. The fraction of mixed children census-labeled as solely black dropped from 62% in 1990 to 31% in 2000 (when respondents were allowed to select multiple races), suggesting that the one-drop theory and denying one's European ancestry are no longer accepted the way they used to be.

Despite the one-drop rule being held illegal (ever since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 overturned the Racial Integrity Act of 1924), as recently as 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision by the federal Office for Dispute Resolution to refuse to hear a case attacking Louisiana’s racial classification criteria as applied to Susie Phipps (479 U.S. 1002) (In 1985, the fair-complexioned Phipps had checked "White" on her passport application. It was denied because, decades before on her birth certificate, a midwife had checked "colored" for one of her parents. Phipps sued, testifying that "this classification came as a shock, since she had always thought she was White, had lived as White, had had twice married as White." 479 So. 2d 369). In addition, several authors and journalists have found it very profitable to "out" as black famous historical mulattoes and whites, who were regarded as white in their society, who self-identified as such, and who were culturally European-American, merely because they acknowledged having (often slight) African ancestry (Anatole Broyard, Patrick Francis Healy, Michael Morris Healy, Jr., Sir Peter Ustinov, Calvin Clark Davis, John James Audubon, Mother Henriette Delille — a Louisiana Creole).

Many scholars publishing on this topic today (including Naomi Zack, Neil Gotanda, Michael L. Blakey, Julie C. Lythcott-Haims, Christine Hickman, David A. Hollinger, Thomas E. Skidmore, G. Reginald Daniel, F. James Davis, Joe R. Feagin, Ian F. Haney-Lopez, Barbara Fields, Dinesh D'Souza, Joel Williamson, Mary C. Waters, Debra J. Dickerson) affirm that the one-drop rule is still strong in American popular culture. Affirmative action court cases, on the other hand, (when an apparently white person claims invisible black ancestry and claims federal entitlements and/or EEOC enforcement) are mixed. In some cases, such as the 1985 Boston firefighters Philip and Paul Malone's case, courts have held that such claimants are guilty of "racial fraud" despite their claim of having a black grandparent. In other instances, such as the 1988 Denver case of schoolteacher Mary Walker — a person of fair complexion, green eyes, light brown hair, and no documented black ancestry — courts have ordered employers to accept claimants as black for EEOC purposes. And other claimants, such in the case in 1997 of Detroit businessman Mostafa Hefny, a black-looking immigrant actually from Africa (Egypt), are denied benefits because North Africans are considered to be white.

The one-drop rule and Latin America

The one drop rule does not apply outside of the United States. Many other countries treat race much less formally than it is treated in the US, and when they do self-identify racially, they often do so in ways very different from how it would be considered in the US. Just as a person with physically recognizable sub-Saharan ancestry can claim to be black in the United States, someone with recognizable Caucasian ancestry may be considered white in Latin America.

In the caste system of colonial Spanish America, there was no barrier for interracial relationships while, at the same time, a racial hierarchy operated, combined with the Iberian purity of blood rules. As a result, the status of a mixed-race person would be determined by the proportion of "white blood" with an elaborate system of different names classifying the combinations of black, Amerindian and white. Inverse from this system, small drops of white blood were enough to position a person above "pure" non-whites. Furthermore, racial caste not only depended on ancestry or skin color, but also could be risen or lowered by the person's economical fortune. After the abolition of slavery and Latin American independence, the caste divisions were blurred into wider groups.

In December, 2002 the Washington Post ran a story on the one drop theory. In the reporter's opinion: "Someone with Sidney Poitier's deep chocolate complexion would be considered white if his hair were straight and he made a living in a profession. That might not seem so odd, Brazilians say, when you consider that the fair-complexioned actresses Rashida Jones ("Boston Public" and "The Office") and Lena Horne are identified as black in the United States."

According to Jose Neinstein, a native white Brazilian and executive director of the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute in Washington, in the United States, "If you are not quite white, then you are black." However, in Brazil, "If you are not quite black, then you are white." Neinstein recalls talking with a man of Poitier's complexion when in Brazil: "We were discussing ethnicity, and I asked him, 'What do you think about this from your perspective as a black man?' He turned his head to me and said, 'I'm not black,' . . . It simply paralyzed me. I couldn't ask another question." It must be said that precisely what the gentleman considered himself — white, brown or other — the story doesn't say.

The Washington Post story also described a Brazilian-born woman who for 30 years before immigrating to the United States considered herself a morena. Her skin had a caramel color that is roughly equated with whiteness in Brazil and some other Latin American countries. "I didn't realize I was black until I came here," she explained. "'Where are you from?' they ask me. I say I'm from Brazil. They say, 'No, you are from Africa.' They make me feel like I am denying who I am."

The same racial culture shock has come to hundreds of thousands of dark-skinned immigrants to the United States from Brazil, Colombia, Panama and other Latin American nations. Although most lack the degree of African ancestry required to be considered black in their homelands, they have often been considered black in US society. According to the Washington Post, their refusal to accept the United States' definition of black has left many feeling attacked from all directions. At times, white Americans might discriminate against them for their black skin; African Americans might believe that Afro-Latino immigrants are denying their blackness; and they think lighter-skinned Latinos dominate Spanish-language television and media. A majority of Latin Americans possess some African or Native American ancestry. Many of these immigrants feel it is hard enough to accept a new language and culture without the additional burden of having to transform from white to black. Yvette Modestin, a dark-skinned native of Panama who worked in Boston, said the situation was overwhelming: "There's not a day that I don't have to explain myself."

Currently, the Brazilian government has attempted to implant the "One Drop Law" in the country, through the Special Secretariat of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality, established in 2003 and managed by the Brazilian Black movement. This has generated opposition from the Brazilian mixed-race movement, which accuses the government of not respecting the identity of the mixed descendants of idigenous natives, Africans and Europeans, or the so-called Mestizos, mulattos and caboclos. The mixed-race movement instituted a Mixed-Race Day, as a symbol of resistance against the proposed One-Drop Rule.

Professor J.B. Bird has said that Latin America is not alone in rejecting the United States' notion than any visible African ancestry is enough to make one black: "In most countries of the Caribbean, Colin Powell would be described as a Creole, reflecting his mixed heritage. In Belize, he might further be described as a 'High Creole', because of his extremely light complexion.

Some consequences of the one-drop rule

Mainly because of the one-drop rule, there are many pale-skinned people who are considered black. In many of these instances, the person can actually have more white ancestry than black. There are examples of how this could happen through the generations. During slavery, there could have been a mulatto person, who because of the one-drop rule, was considered black. If they then had a child with a white person, the child would have been one-quarter black, but still considered black. There are numerous people through American history who had more Caucasian than sub-Saharan (Black) heritage, but were generally, or often, considered black. Examples would include Sally Hemings and G.K. Butterfield.

However, such people today are the exception, not the rule. The average person who self-identifies as black in America has at least 53% of their ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa. Only 10% of Americans who self-identify as black are less than 50% sub-Saharan in ancestry.

Despite continued intermarriage between African Americans and Native Americans, descendants have had difficulty by some tribal rules in being able to claim tribal rights.

One-drop rule in popular culture

The one-drop rule and its consequences have been the subject of several works of popular culture. In the musical Show Boat, Steve, a white man who is married to a black woman, is pursued by the sheriff, who is going to arrest Steve and charge him with miscegenation. Steve pricks his wife's finger and swallows some of her blood. When the sheriff arrives, Steve asks him whether he would consider a man to be white if he had "negro blood" in him. The sheriff replies that "one drop of negro blood makes you a negro in these parts". Steve tells the sheriff that he has "more than a drop of negro blood in me". After being assured by others that Steve is telling the truth, the sheriff leaves without arresting Steve.

In the Family Guy episode "Peter Griffin: Husband, Father...Brother?," Peter discovers that he has a pre-Civil War black ancestor. Because of the one-drop rule, Peter, who has always thought of himself as white, self-identifies as black and starts to attend events that draw primarily African-American audiences.

The Public Enemy song "Fear of a Black Planet," from the album of the same name, neatly summarizes this phenomenon with the lines: "Black man, black woman, black baby / White man, white woman, white baby / White man, black woman, black baby / Black man, white woman, black baby."


Preponderance of ancestry

Increasingly, the one-drop rule and the reverse one-drop rule are being replaced by another methodology of deciding who is black and white. In this definition, a person's race is expressed in terms of where most of their ancestors come from.

Debra Dickerson writes that since "easily one-third of blacks have white DNA", why, in light of this, has so much of the focus on tracing ancestry in the black community focused on finding a link back to a region in Africa. She argues that in ignoring their white ancestors, African Americans are denying their fully articulated multi-racial identities.

According to J. Phillipe Rushton, who holds that gaps in IQ scores between races represent genetic differences between these races.:

Yes, to a certain extent all the races blend into each other. That is true in any biological classification system. However, most people can be clearly identified with one race or another. In both everyday life and evolutionary biology, a "Black" is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in sub-Saharan Africa. A "White" is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in Europe. And an "Oriental" is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in East Asia. Modern DNA studies give rather much the same results.

According to Michael Levin:

Hybrid populations with multiple lines of descent are to be characterized in just those terms: as of multiple descent. Thus, American Negroids are individuals most of whose ancestors from 15 to 5000 generations ago were sub- Saharan African. Specifying 'most' more precisely in a way that captures ordinary usage may not be possible. '> 50%' seems too low a threshold; my sense is that ordinary attributions of race begin to stabilize at 75%.

Meanwhile, the company DNAPrint Genomics analyzes DNA to determine the exact percentage of Indo-European, sub-Saharan, East Asian, and Native American heritage someone has and assigns the person to the category White, Black, East Asian, Native American, or mixed race accordingly. According to U.S. sociologist Troy Duster and ethicist Pilar Ossorio:

Some percentage of people who look white will possess genetic markers indicating that a significant majority of their recent ancestors were African. Some percentage of people who look black will possess genetic markers indicating the majority of their recent ancestors were European.

The Pencil test

During the system of apartheid in South Africa, one drop of sub-Saharan blood was not enough to be considered black. South African law maintained a major distinction between those who were black and those who were coloured. When it was unclear from a person's physical appearance which racial classification they belonged to, the pencil test was employed. This involved inserting a pencil in a person's hair to determine if the hair was kinky enough for the pencil to get stuck. If the pencil remained stuck in a person's hair, the person was "black."

See also



Further reading

  • Daniel, G. Reginald. More Than Black? Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 2002. ISBN 1-56639-909-2
  • Daniel, G. Reginald. Race and Multiraciality in Brazil and the United States: Converging Paths?. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-271-02883-1
  • Davis, James F., Who is Black?: One Nation's Definition. University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-271-02172-1
  • Guterl, Matthew Press, The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-674-01012-4
  • Moran, Rachel F., Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race & Romance, Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003. ISBN 0-226-53663-7
  • Romano, Renee Christine, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Post-War America. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-674-01033-7
  • Savy, Pierre, « Transmission, identité, corruption. Réflexions sur trois cas d’hypodescendance », L’homme. Revue française d’anthropologie, 182, 2007 (« Racisme, antiracisme et sociétés »), p. 53-80
  • Yancey, George, Just Don't Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage & Parenting. Judson Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8170-1439-X

External links


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