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The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term for a belief among some people in the United Statesmarker that a person with any trace of African ancestry is black.

This notion of invisible/intangible membership in a racial group has seldom been applied to people of other 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."




The one-drop rule was a tactic in the U.S. South that codified and strengthened segregation and the disfranchisement of most blacks and many poor whites from 1890-1910. After Supreme Court decisions in Plessy v. Ferguson and related matters, White-dominated legislatures felt free to enact Jim Crow laws segregating Blacks in public places and accommodations, and passed other restrictive legislation. Legislatures sought to prevent interracial relationships to keep the white race "pure" long after slaveholders and overseers took advantage of enslaved women and produced the many mixed-race children.

The 1910–19 decade was the nadir of the Jim Crow era. Tennesseemarker adopted a one-drop statute in 1910, and Louisianamarker soon followed. Then Texasmarker and Arkansasmarker in 1911, Mississippimarker in 1917, North Carolinamarker in 1923, Virginiamarker in 1924, Alabamamarker and Georgiamarker in 1927, and Oklahomamarker in 1931. During this same period, Floridamarker, Indianamarker, Kentuckymarker, Marylandmarker, Missourimarker, Nebraskamarker, North Dakotamarker, and Utahmarker 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 degree" (3 x great-grandparents).

Madison Grant of New York in The Passing of the Great Race wrote: "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 Assemblymarker declared that a person could be considered white as long as they had no more than one-sixteenth Indian "blood".

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.

When the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker outlawed Virginia's ban on inter-racial marriage in Loving v. Virginia (1967), it declared Plecker's Virginia Racial Integrity Act and the one-drop rule unconstitutional.

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 black or at least 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.

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 Louisianamarker’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" (whether from Europe, the United States, or elsewhere), merely because they acknowledged having (often slight) African ancestry (Anatole Broyard, James Augustine Healy, Patrick Francis Healy, Michael Healy, 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.

The rule in other countries of the Americas

The one drop rule is nearly unique to the United States. People in most other countries tend to treat race less rigidly, and often self-identify racially in ways different than many people in the United States. 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 Brazilmarker.

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 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, Colombiamarker, Panamamarker, 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 Bostonmarker, said the situation was overwhelming: "There's not a day that I don't have to explain myself."

Professor J.B. Bird has said that Latin America is not alone in rejecting the United States' notion that 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 Belizemarker, he might further be described as a 'High Creole', because of his extremely light complexion." This shows that the perception of race, particularly concerning people of black heritage, is relative to each individual person or a people.

Racial mixtures of blacks and whites in modern America

Mark D. Shriver, a molecular anthropologist, heads a group of nine population researchers at Penn State University. They conducted a study of their own regarding the racial admixture of black and white Americans. Who was black or African American and who was white or European American in his study was based on self-identification. It is important to note that measurements are estimates, and might not be completely accurate.

Taking a 3,000 American persons sample from 25 locations in America, among those from the sample who self-identified as white, the black racial admixture between them was only about 0.7%; which is the equivalent of among 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, having 1 black and the other 127 white. Nationwide, estimates project 70% of white Americans have no African ancestors, and among the 30% that do, their black racial admixture is only 2.3%; the equivalent of having 3 three ancestors out of those same 128.

Blacks, on the other hand, are much more racially mixed than whites, although Shriver's study indicates that blacks are less white European than other popular race studies indicate; (studies that indicate blacks being around 25-30% white on average). Taking into consideration that Shriver's study is still not yet complete, results already in indicate that on the whole blacks are around 18% white; which is the equivalent of having 22 white ancestors among those 128. About 10% of blacks are over 50% white. Shriver also points out that the admixture rates also vary by region. For example, the black populations with the highest average white ancestry discovered at this time are those in California and Seattle, with blacks in those two locations being a little over 25% white European on average.

One-drop rule as a plot device

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.


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.

After the completion of the Human Genome Project it became evident that the concept of "race" is not reflected in the human genetic makeup. Although genetic variation does reflect genetic ancestry and patterns of human migration, an individual's race can not be determined by analysis of their DNA. Therefore, while the concept of race still exists on a social level, on a genetic level "race" does not exist:
"DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspecies (races) exist within modern humans.
While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another.
There also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity.
People who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.
Indeed, it has been proven that there is more genetic variation within races than exists between them."

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, a psychologist 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 estimate the 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 possess genetic markers indicating that a significant majority of their recent ancestors are 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 what 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". This type of test was used by authorities during the apartheid era in South Africa to "ascertain" a person's race (see Coloured and Passing .) In the absence of any centralized method, this and other subjective tests were used in various places across South Africa as part of the Population Registration Act of 1950. A pencil would be placed in a person's hair, if it fell through they were classified as "White" (or "Coloured", depending on other subjective classification considerations); if the pencil did not fall through, they were classified differently ("Coloured" or "Black", also depending on other subjective classification considerations). Members of the same family who had different hair textures would find themselves in different race groups as a result of this test. This presented serious consequences for many families (see Population Registration Act, Pass Law, Group Areas Act, District Sixmarker).

See also


  1. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, an Autobiography (New York: Knopf, 1940).
  2. Pauli Murray, ed. States’ Laws on Race and Color (Athens, 1997), 428, 173, 443, 37, 237, 330, 463, 22, 39, 358, 77, 150, 164, 207, 254, 263, 459.
  3. Madison Grant, The Passing of The Great Race, 1916
  4. For the Plecker story, see J. Douglas Smith, "The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: 'Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro'," Journal of Southern History 68, no. 1 (2002): 65-106
  5. For Drake, see Virginia R. Dominguez, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University, 1986)
  6. People of Color Who Never Felt They Were Black
  7. FAQ on the Black Seminoles, John Horse, and Rebellion
  8. Race Now: #2: How White Are Blacks? How Black Are Whites? by Steve Sailer; Mark. D. Shriver
  9. Show Boat (1951) Overview, Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2008-03-21.
  10. Make Believe - Show Boat - Synopsis, from the 1993 Canadian cast recording, Retrieved 2008-03-21.
  11. The End of Blackness by Debra Dickerson.
  12. Rushton J. P. (2000) Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective, Charles Darwin Research Inst. Pr; 3rd edition (ISBN 0965683613). Abstract available here
  13. Levin M. The Race Concept: A Defense, Behavior and Philosophy, 30, 21-42 (2002)
  15. Stanford News Service. South African activist teacher gets education doctorate
  16. Art in South Africa. Pencil Test Series
  17. [1]
  18. [2]
  19. [3]
  20. [4]

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

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