Features of Today’s One-Drop Rule

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
March 1, 2005

T

win brothers Phillip and Paul Malone applied to become Boston firefighters in 1975 but were rejected due to low civil service test scores. After the city instituted an affirmative action program that added test points for Blacks, the Malone brothers claimed that their mother suddenly revealed that a great-grandmother was Black. They thereupon re-applied as Blacks in 1977 and successfully completed the exam due to the extra points that they received for their newly discovered Blackness. For ten years, they led successful careers and their names were submitted to the Boston Fire Commission for promotion to lieutenants in 1987. Both men passed the qualifying exams with exceptional scores (without affirmative action points).1

Then, a fire commissioner who had been reviewing promotion paperwork observed the Malones and accused the brothers of “racial” fraud. The accusation sparked a political firestorm. One minority leader claimed that as many as 60 of Boston’s 351 Black and 51 Hispanic firefighters were actually lying Whites. Another complained that the authorities had “looked the other way” for ten years. “If a black person came waltzing into the fire department in the ’70s and it was in his interest to claim he was white, I have no doubt the Boston Fire Department would say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not white.’ [But] When a white person said he is black, they look the other way.”

Stung by the attacks, Boston’s enraged Mayor Flynn ordered investigations into all city departments—fire, police, schools—to root out other Whites who may have fraudulently claimed minority status. As in 1976 Los Angeles, a frenzy of bureaucratic evil-seeking ensued.2 The fire department’s investigation turned up eleven Spanish-surnamed individuals who were accused of not being “racially” Hispanic enough. Seven were exonerated; two resigned under pressure; the other two remained under investigation until the firestorm dwindled away. Two departments—Police and Schools—refused to participate in the widening hunt for “racial” frauds and the mayor complained publicly about their insubordination. The following year, a twenty-three-page ruling by Justice Herbert Wilkins of the state Supreme Judicial Court convicted the Malones of fraud and upheld their expulsion. In his decision, Justice Wilkins referred to the position taken by the Black political leadership. Had the Black community supported the Malone brothers (and presumably the disgraced Hispanic firefighters as well), they would have been allowed to keep their jobs.

* * * * *

This essay explains, in six topics, the phenomenon of the one-drop rule in America today. Definition explains that the one-drop rule is hypodescent taken to absurd conclusion—that someone with trivial African ancestry is considered Black. Many Scholars Believe That the One-Drop Rule is Stronger Than Ever surveys the writings of about two-dozen scholars of U.S. race relations publishing today to reveal a clear academic consensus. Some Evidence Disputes the One-Drop Rule’s Universality presents recent cases to show that nowadays the one-drop rule is often rejected by Blacks and Whites alike. Other Evidence Confirms the One-Drop Rule’s Popularity presents another series of examples to show the opposite—that the one-drop rule is also often enforced by Blacks and Whites alike. Scholarly Pronouncements are Unpersuasive explains that moral position-taking and hidden assumptions make unsubstantiated assertions suspect, even those made by respected scholars. Finally, The Future examines census data as to how interracial parents label their children to conclude that the one-drop rule may possibly become less fashionable in the coming decades, although advocating it will continue to be a lucrative practice.

Definition

This essay uses “one-drop rule” to mean that some people without even a hint of African features or skin tone, like New York Times critic Anatole Broyard or Anthony Hopkins’s character in the film The Human Stain, are classified as members of the Black endogamous group by press and public despite their European appearance. They are seen as unsuitable marriage partners by Whites but suitable by Blacks because of an un-measurable, invisible touch (one drop) of Black ancestry. As Naomi Zack puts it, “One-drop rule: American social and legal custom of classifying anyone with one black ancestor, regardless of how far back, as black.”3

Not everyone uses the term “one-drop rule” thus. To some, “one-drop rule” is synonymous with Marvin Harris’s term “hypodescent,” meaning that Americans of African physical appearance are considered Black, even if their African admixture is less than 50 percent.4 This differs from the Caribbean, where you are “White” if you look preponderantly European.

To others, “one-drop rule” refers to the U.S. folkloric belief that anyone who has even one drop of African blood in his veins is marked by some subtle physical trait, a clue that reveals the African ancestry. Some say that it is revealed in the color of the half-moons at the base of the thumbnails, or in the shape of the heel, or in blue or purple marks at specific locations on the body. To them, “one-drop rule” is the belief that no matter how diluted African blood may be, a residue of visible evidence will always remain, generation after generation. For some purposes, these may be useful definitions, but neither is the meaning used here. In this work, “one-drop rule” means “invisible Blackness.” It means that someone who looks utterly European is considered Black anyway, presumably due to having some distant intangible Black ancestry. The folkloric belief in a physical mark or stigma that remains visible despite infinite dilution of Negro blood is important in U.S. history, and turns up in many nineteenth-century court cases. Nevertheless, such a belief in a permanent stigma is not the topic of this essay. The difference may seem historically trivial, but it is epistemologically vital.

The belief that anyone with one drop of Negro blood, no matter how dilute, will carry some visible mark of ancestry is a statement about observable reality. It is easily refuted precisely because it is thereby subject to experience and demonstration.5 In contrast, the belief that a person with no detectable African ancestry is Black nonetheless and merely “looks White” is not a claim about observable reality. It is a statement about something intangible. Hence, it cannot be tested; it cannot be refuted. This is precisely why such a belief is a fascinating subject of study. Americans live in a world where many educated intellectuals use word processors on computers that exploit the laws of quantum mechanics, to express sincere pre-enlightenment beliefs in an unseen world. This is not to suggest that all social constructs are irrational. Gender, class, religion, even criminality are social constructs. But a person’s gender, class, religion, or criminal record can be determined by evidence, by observation. Physical observation may be impractical in any given case, and objectivity may be elusive. Nevertheless, tangible observation is theoretically definitive for such constructs. Invisible Blackness, on the other hand is no more tangible in principle than Original Sin. As Scott L. Malcomson explains:

The one-drop rule held that one drop of black blood made a person black. At first glance, this might seem to fix racial matters in a final shape and settle the problem of determining who’s who. Yet it did just the opposite…. Seeking to pin down the essence of race, the one-drop rule actually made that essence unknowable, indeed invisible. It jettisoned the perceptible reality of skin tone for the dream of racial essence; it made the physical metaphysical. It was simply not possible to know whether you had a drop of black blood—to know whether you were really a white person or an imitation. There was no way to find out, no way to be sure. The one-drop rule made whiteness imaginary, pushed one’s whiteness back into an indefinitely receding past of unknown ancestors. It took a crucial social fact of your life and made it a legacy bequeathed by ghosts—all in the form of a fine legal distinction meant to clarify a permanent system of racial separatism.6

The one-drop rule’s notion of invisible Blackness exists only in the United States.7 To be sure, a few Old World castes are also based on invisible ancestry, rather than on genotype: the Harijans of India, the Burakumin of Japan. But such customs trace membership through one parent or the other, and are unrelated to African-European racialism.

The one-drop rule spawns the corollary notion of “passing for White,” an Americanism that is not even listed in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.8 The concept is exceedingly difficult to explain to students and visitors from other countries, whether they hail from former British, French, or Dutch Caribbean colonies or from Muslim or Latino lands.9 According to F. James Davis, they typically ask, “Shouldn’t Americans say that a person who is passing as white is white, or nearly all white, and had previously been passing as black?” or “To be consistent, shouldn’t you say that someone who is one-eighth white is passing as black?”10 Indeed, what Alessandro de Medici, Queen Charlotte, Alexander Pushkin, Alexandre Dumas, and John James Audubon had in common was their openly avowed partial African ancestry.11 Yet, no one in Italy, England, Russia, France, or early America respectively, labeled them “Black.”12 In today’s United States, on the other hand, Americans who claim recent African ancestry risk becoming irrevocably Black in the eyes of the press and public.13

Many Scholars Believe That the One-Drop Rule is Stronger Than Ever

Many scholars of contemporary race relations assert that the one-drop rule is stronger than ever among Americans today. In a standard undergraduate text on contemporary U.S. racialism, Naomi Zack explains:

The formal basis for black and white racial identity amounts to this: … A person is black if he or she has a black ancestor anywhere in family history. This is known as the “one-drop rule”…. Thus, Americans with both white and black ancestry are always officially classified as black and often encouraged to identify as black in personal and social contexts. … A person is white if he or she has no black ancestry anywhere in family history. This means that in order to be white, a person has to be purely white. This is a condition impossible to prove….14

According to legal scholar Neil Gotanda, American “racial” classifications in court cases today follow two formal rules:

1) Rule of recognition: Any person whose Black-African ancestry is visible is Black. 2) Rule of descent: (a) Any person with a known trace of African ancestry is Black, notwithstanding that person’s visual appearance; or; stated differently, (b) the offspring of a Black and a white is Black. Historians and social scientists have noted the existence of these rules, often summarized as the “one drop of blood” rule, in their analysis of the American system of racial classification.15 … White is unblemished and pure, so one drop of ancestral Black blood renders one Black.16

Anthropologist Michael L. Blakey writes, “The ‘one drop theory’… [is] still operative today, by which one is defined as ‘Black’ when they have any African admixture, or defined as ‘White’ by the absence of non-European admixture.”17 Legal scholar Julie C. Lythcott-Haims writes, “[The one-drop rule] still exists today; Americans who are part-Black are socially considered Black, and only Black by most Americans. … The one-drop rule is so ingrained in the American psyche that Blacks and Whites do not think twice about it.”18 Legal scholar Christine Hickman writes, “For generations, the boundaries of the African-American race have been formed by a rule, informally known as the ‘one drop rule,’ which, in its colloquial definition, provides that one drop of Black blood makes a person Black. In more formal, sociological circles… its meaning remains basically the same: anyone with a known Black ancestor is considered Black.”19

Historian David A. Hollinger writes, “The stigma carried by blackness is unique, and is affixed and perpetuated resolutely by the American practice of treating blackness as a monolithic identity that an individual either has or does not have on the basis of the principle that any African ancestry at all determines that one is simply black.”20 Historian Thomas E. Skidmore writes, “For me, as a historian of Brazil, North America’s “one-drop rule” has always seemed odd. No other society in this hemisphere has defined its racial types in such absolutist terms.”21 Sociologist G. Reginald Daniel writes:

But… theories have not taken into consideration the fact that no matter how well African Americans are integrated into the primary structural sphere through racial intermarriage, the one-drop rule guarantees that African ancestry is passed on in perpetuity as a means of racially designating all future multiracial offspring as black. As long as this device remains intact, whether formally or informally, it precludes a multiracial identification. … The one-drop rule has become such an accepted part of the U.S. fabric that most individuals—except perhaps African Americans—are unaware of its oppressive origins.”22

Sociologist F. James Davis writes, “This American cultural definition of blacks is taken for granted as readily by judges, affirmative action officers, and black protesters as it is by Ku Klux Klansmen.”23 Sociologist Joe R. Feagin writes, “The infamous one-drop-of-blood rule… has long characterized any American with a little African ancestry as ‘black.’”24 Legal scholar Ian F. Haney-Lopez writes, “Under this [one-drop] rule, historically given form in numerous state statutes, any known ancestry renders one Black. … Stated differently, Whites are those with no known African… ancestry.”25 Historian Barbara Fields writes, “Throughout U.S. history, racial identity has been legally, and later culturally determined by the one-drop rule.”26

Of those who believe that the one-drop rule is today’s national consensus, some say that it is used by Whites to exploit Blacks, who are powerless to resist it. Barbara Fields writes that it is “used as an ideological weapon to support the continued exploitation of African Americans….”27 She explains that the one-drop rule is imposed against Black resistance and gives “individuals with any known black ancestry no choice other than to identify as black.”28 And she writes, “White Americans… generally regard passing as a particularly insidious form of deceit.”29 Similarly, Christine Hickman writes, “[Whites] fashioned [the one-drop rule] out of racism, malice, greed, lust, and ignorance….”30

Others, who are equally convinced that the one-drop rule reflects today’s attitudes, say that it survives only because Blacks embrace it and use it to resist White “racism.” According to Dinesh D’Souza:

All the major civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, now strongly support the one-drop rule and would strongly resist getting rid of it. As activist Julian Bond puts it, “I very much oppose diluting the power and strength of numbers as they affect legal decisions about race in this country.”31 … The one-drop principle continues to define blackness in America and now serves as a unifying force for African Americans.32

Historian Joel Williamson writes, “Millions of Americans who are more European than African in their heritage continue to insist, sometimes defiantly, upon their blackness.”33 Sociologist Mary C. Waters writes, “Black Americans are highly socially constrained to identify as blacks, without other options available to them, even if they believe or know that their forebears included many non-blacks.”34 F. James Davis writes:

Blacks are just as anxious as whites to instruct the young and the deviant about how the rule works and how important it is to follow it. The rule is now strongly enforced within the black community. American blacks now feel that they have an important vested interest in [the one-drop rule]. … The overwhelming reality is that most blacks in the United States… feel that they have an important stake in maintaining [the one-drop rule], socialize their children to accept it, and rally to its defense when it is challenged.35

Julie C. Lythcott-Haims writes, “Part-Black people of all hues joined Blacks in embracing the [one-drop rule] in the late 1960s. …”36 Christine Hickman writes, “[The one-drop] rule created the African-American race as we know it today, and while this race has its origins in the peoples of three continents and its members can look very different from one another, over the centuries the [White] one drop rule united this race as a people….”37 Journalist and author Debra J. Dickerson writes, “No one believes as fervently in the ‘one drop’ rule as blacks do.”38

How could a Black minority have the power to force an unwilling White society to pay obeisance to the one-drop rule against its will? Some suggest that the strength of the one-drop rule may be due to the fact that both civil and criminal federal and state courts engaged in affirmative action cases today enforce the one-drop rule as the law of the land. According to Dinesh D’Souza:

[The one-drop rule] serves as the official instrument of enforcement of civil rights laws. Ever since 1965, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission required race-conscious record-keeping and reporting on the part of companies, racial classification has been an organizing principle for the American work force.39

Some Evidence Disputes the One-Drop Rule’s Universality

Despite such scholarly assertions, the fact is that not every American with an invisible trace of African ancestry is inevitably assigned to the Black endogamous group by U.S. society. In June 2004, the author presented a historical paper to the 5th biennial Melungeon Union in Kingsport, Tennessee. Several hundred members of this famous maroon community of the Cumberland Plateau attended the conference, along with members of the Redbones and other maroon communities. All of the attendees openly embrace all of their ancestries, including African (about five percent genetic admixture, on average), and yet they consider themselves White nonetheless (that is, they see themselves as suitable marriage partners for other members of the U.S. White endogamous group).

The entertainment industry also often rejects the one-drop rule. Many actors, musicians, and professional athletes have found that acknowledging a trace of African ancestry can help, rather than hinder, one’s career. And so, the official web sites of many such entertainers claim mixed ancestry.40 Like the maroons, such individuals defy the one-drop rule by considering themselves White while simultaneously acknowledging partial African heritage. Others reject racialism entirely by refusing to adopt any “race” at all, thus emulating many Hispanics and Muslims.41

Self-identification as White along with public pride in fractional African ancestry is not limited to the entertainment industry, where such a strategy may be lucrative. A survey of 177 Detroit college students, each with one Black and one White parent, offered the subjects seven choices of “racial” self-identification. The choices were: (1) exclusively Black, (2) sometimes Black and sometimes not, (3) biracial but “experience the world as Black”, (4) exclusively biracial, (5) exclusively not Black, (6) “race is meaningless,” and (7) other.42 Notice that “White” was not offered as an option. This was because the researcher himself believed that the one-drop rule was the insuperable norm. He wrote, “current research… assumes that individuals with one black and one white parent have only two options for racial identity: ‘black’ or ‘biracial.’”43 Since the survey was limited to first-generation biracials, its very format made a “White” self-image exceedingly unlikely to be reported. And yet, despite the odds stacked against White self-identity, 3.6 percent of the subjects deliberately ignored the given choices and the implicit assumptions built into the form and painstakingly wrote in “White (only).”44

On a 1982 TV talk show, a Jamaican singer said in her clipped British accent, “I like to do Black songs sometimes. I am half Black, you know.” According to F. James Davis, the statement startled American viewers. One could not be “half Black” in the United States of 1982.45 Davis wrote:

Challenges to the [one-drop] rule in court have been rare, especially in the twentieth century. As the Phipps case demonstrates, the rule still seems to be well settled in both state and federal law in the United States. That case has raised widespread interest, however, and could encourage other legal tests. Cases could come from the Hispanic community, where racial classification has often been a local issue. Before long, Hispanics will become the nation’s largest minority group, and they are already increasingly active in politics and in court. Legal challenges to the federal rule might come from Hawaii, where the one-drop rule is contrary to the traditional pattern of race relations. However, the probability of major judicial or legislative challenges to the rule for the nation as a whole seems small. Overall, both individual and patterned deviations from the one-drop rule are likely to continue to symbolize and strengthen it more than pose significant challenges to the rule.46

And yet, just twelve years after Davis wrote those words, a magazine article about a professional tennis star headlined, “James Blake may hit the books as hard as the ball, but that doesn’t mean this young, gifted, half-black [emphasis mine] Harvard-educated heartthrob isn’t the future of tennis.”47

Rejection of the one-drop rule is neither recent nor limited to such peripheral communities as the entertainment industry. The one-drop rule was sometimes rejected by the White elite even before the civil rights movement, as was exemplified by the tale of Louetta Chassereau. She was ruled by her state Supreme Court in Bennett v. Bennett,1940 South Carolina, to have become White despite having been born Black.48

As discussed above, much scholarly opinion holds that members of the U.S. Black endogamous group embrace the one-drop rule. Nevertheless, the reality is that African-American disputants routinely reject the one-drop rule whenever it is politically advantageous to do so. Affirmative action litigation provides many examples.

The inconsistency and ambiguity of EEOC regulations provide a rich environment for claims and counter-claims based on acceptance or rejection of the one-drop rule. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the executive agency that investigates discrimination and negotiates settlements under 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-4 to 2000e-5b) was given the responsibility of defining “racial” classifications for federal litigation.49 The EEOC recognizes five “races.” Three of those “races” are of interest here:

  • White (not of Hispanic origin)—All persons having origin in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East.
  • Black (not of Hispanic origin)—All persons having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.
  • Hispanic—All persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.50

None of the definitions is internally consistent or even makes logical sense. More importantly, the definitions of Black and White assume that all litigants are of pureblooded ancestry; the law cannot contemplate the existence of hybrids.

Similarly, other federal and state regulations refer to minority set-asides, but the term “minority” is not defined in law. Perhaps this is because it seems mathematically to be based on population counts. And yet, when asked to identify their “ethnic heritage” on the census long form, fewer than one percent of Americans claim to be “White.” The most popular choices of ethnicity are: German (23.3%), Irish (15.6%), English (13.1%), African-American (10.0%), and Italian (5.9%). In other words speaking mathematically, self-assessed “Blacks” are among the four largest “majorities” in America (pluralities, actually) and the term “White” is insignificantly buried just below Puerto Ricans and Slovaks (0.7%) and just above Danes and Hungarians (0.6%).51 The point, of course, is not that Blacks rule or that Whites are subordinate, but that, like “race” and “ethnicity,” the term “minority” itself is inconsistent and ambiguous.52

The Malone brothers, whose tale opened this essay, claimed one-drop membership in the Black endogamous group. They were convicted of fraud due to the testimony of Black political leaders who rejected their claim to invisible Blackness because they were not ethnically African-American. Similarly, Mostafa Hefny, an African-looking immigrant, actually from Africa, was rejected by local U.S. Black leaders as not being “African-American” in the ethnic sense intended by EEOC regulations.53

That Blacks reject one-drop and bar the door to membership in the Black community against people who were not brought up within the African-American ethnic tradition may seem unsurprising. But Black leaders have also been known to bar the door to Blackness against political opponents who were born, raised, and lived their lives as African Americans. Consider the tale of Mark Stebbins and Ralph White.

“If the momma is an elephant and the daddy is an elephant, they durn sure can’t have no lion. They got to have a baby elephant,” said Ralph White. After a newcomer unseated this twelve-year City Council incumbent in a March, 1984, election in Stockton, California, the millionaire loser demanded a recall. Ralph White claimed that Mark Stebbins had lied to the voters about his “race.”54 The defeated councilman said that the victor falsely claimed to be Black in order win votes in a district where, according to the Associated Press, “37 percent of the residents are black, 46 percent Hispanic, 8 percent white and 9 percent of other ancestry.”55

Mark Stebbins, the accused victor, had been a pro-integration civil rights activist for two decades. He had led the San Francisco Hunter’s Point demonstrations in the early 1960s. He had moved to Stockton with a church group trying to organize the city’s disadvantaged and had become coordinator of several dozen city-sponsored community gardens. He is fair complexioned and—discounting a broad nose and frizzy hair—looks preponderantly Euro-American. His wife is African-dark. Stebbins claimed to be “culturally, socially, and genetically” black, tracing his African ancestry through an unspecified grandparent. He said, “it’s terribly significant that you can still ask [a man’s “race”] 20 years or more after the initial Civil Rights Act.”

Ralph White, the defeated accuser, had also been a civil rights activist, but of separatist (Black pride), rather than integrationist, persuasion. He had been a butcher when first elected to the Council twelve years earlier, and had become a millionaire since. He looks distinctly Afro-American. White had uncovered a copy of Stebbins’s birth certificate, which listed his parents as “white.” It was then that White called a press conference to explain the heredity of elephants and lions. He responded to a question about his harping on his victorious opponents “race” by explaining, “It’s not a racist issue. He lied to my people and said he was something he wasn’t. He deceived and defrauded my people by tricking them and lying to them about being one of them.”

On the other hand, some members of Stockton’s Black community defended Stebbins. The Rev. Bob Hailey, chairman of the Stockton chapter of the Black American Political Association of California said that Stebbins was, “one of the bright spots here. In my estimation, he thinks black and is black.” Hailey said that the voters were tired of White, who had done nothing since his election twelve years before other than build himself a 27-room mansion with a tennis court and swimming pool. He also bought a nightclub, 32 rental properties, and a grocery store. “He’s been more detrimental to the black community than anybody I know of.”

White replied that, “Any time a black person gets a couple of dollars more than other folks, they accuse him of doing something wrong.” For his part, Stebbins pointed out that if he had wanted to lie about his “race” in order to get elected, “I should have said I’m Hispanic. My Spanish isn’t that bad.” Stebbins survived White’s first recall petition and a subsequent court-ordered run-off election in June. But his opponent simply filed another recall petition, and Stebbins’s political support slowly dwindled. In the end, Stebbins lost a December recall vote. Nine months after having been voted out in the regular election, White was reinstated as councilman and Stebbins was expelled from office—presumably for having committed “racial” fraud.

At least two scholars believe that America’s one-drop rule may be waning. According to David L. Brunsma and Kerry Ann Rockquemore, “The cultural space has emerged where the one-drop rule has been challenged—particularly among young multiracial people. … Such experiences have allowed a rejection of the one-drop rule and forced a reconsideration of the mutual exclusivity of racial categories.”56

Other Evidence Confirms the One-Drop Rule’s Popularity

On the other hand, much evidence suggests that the one-drop rule is still invoked whenever it seems useful. Court cases as well as scholarly papers and policy pronouncements show this. As recently as 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the one-drop rule by refusing to hear a case against Louisiana’s “racial” classification criteria.

In 1985, fair-complexioned Mrs. Susie Guillory Phipps of Louisiana 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. Mrs. Phipps sued (see Jane Doe v. State of Louisiana, 1985 Louisiana).57 She testified that, “this classification came as a shock, since she had always thought she was White, had lived as White, and had twice married as White.” The state argued that Mrs. Phipps possibly descended from some eighteenth century planter who had married a former slave, long before Louisiana was part of the United States. (In 1970, Louisiana had passed legislation that anyone with 1/32 Negro ancestry or more was legally Black.) Mrs. Phipps was unable to disprove this possibility. So, the court ruled that she was legally Black and could not receive a White passport. She appealed to the three levels of state court and lost each time. In 1986, she appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She lost again. The court refused to consider the case, saying that “racial” determination was not a federal issue.58 The 1986 U.S. Supreme Court thus upheld Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896. (Homer Plessy was also genetically White but legally Black.) The courts also upheld an earlier Louisiana Supreme Court ruling (State ex rel. Joseph Jules Schlumbrecht, Jr. v. Louisiana Board of Health, 1970 Louisiana) that once a Black designation has been officially recorded on a birth certificate, “vital statistics cannot be changed unless the proof and support [of Whiteness] leaves no doubt at all [emphasis added].”59

/francispatrick.jpg
Francis Patrick Healy

In 1815, Irish immigrant Michael Morris Healy founded a slave plantation near Macon, Georgia. He and his biracial wife, Eliza Clark Healy, raised ten children. All were educated in the North and five subsequently achieved success as Irish-Americans: James Augustine Healy became Bishop of Portland, Maine, Patrick Francis Healy became president of Georgetown University, Michael Morris Healy, Jr. became a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard and the sole U.S. government representative in newly purchased Alaska, Alexander Sherwood Healy became rector of the cathedral in Boston, and their sister became mother superior of a convent.

/MichaelMorris.jpg
Michael Morris Healy, Jr.

Their photographs show no sign of African features. Their writings show them to have been neither more nor less prejudiced than other prominent Irish-Americans of their time, but one thing is overwhelmingly clear: they saw themselves and were seen by their community as White. They left numerous written documents to this effect, and even the sea-captain’s teenaged son once scratched his name on a remote rock above the Arctic Circle during an exploration voyage as “the first white boy” to have visited the region.60 And yet the Catholic Church today publicizes James as America’s first Black bishop,61 Georgetown University publicizes Patrick as the nation’s first Black university president,62 and the National Archives and Records Administration publicizes Michael as the first Black Coast Guard captain.63 Each of these present-day sources refers to these men as African-Americans, each portrays them as praiseworthy, and each laments that their only moral flaw was to falsely deny their true “race.”

Calvin Clark Davis of Bear Lake, Michigan, died heroically in 1944 while attacking the oil refineries in Meresburg, Germany with the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was posthumously awarded several medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. Davis considered himself to be White, nothing more, and his neighbors agreed. Staffers for a U.S. congressman recently discovered and made public that Davis had undetectable but proven African ancestry. U.S. newspapers portrayed him as: “passed for white” (Traverse City Record-Eagle), “lied about who he was” (Traverse City Record-Eagle), “claimed to be white” (Chimes, student newspaper of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI), “pretended to be white” (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times), “concealed his race” (Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, MI), “faked being white” (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times), “black man who pretended to be white” (The Holland Sentinel).64 This unanimity of interpretation defied common knowledge in the region that early twentieth-century Michiganers routinely accepted European-looking people with trace Black ancestry as White.65 Only the BBC reported his story as a “white airman with black ancestry.”66

The Catholic Church recently nominated Mother Henriette Delille, the founder of the Order of the Sisters of the Holy Family, for canonization. The honor is due to the aid that she and her order gave selflessly to slaves, freedmen, gens de couleur libre,67 children, elderly and the sick, from 1842 to 1862, when no one else in Louisiana seemed to care. Mother Henriette Delille was the daughter of Jean Baptiste Delille Sarpy (of French and Italian descent) and Marie Diaz, (of French, Hispanic, and African descent). Her canonization had been supported by Louisiana’s Creole community, including descendants of Mother Henriette’s family. To the family’s horror, the Church has publicized the process as the proposed canonization of the first “Black” American saint.68

To grasp the controversy, one must understand that many if not most Creoles today reject the U.S. “race” notion (rather like Hispanics, unsurprisingly). In 1976, for instance, a historian interviewed the president of Jeunes Amis, a fraternal association for gens de couleur libre, requesting access to its historical documents. The scholar said that he wanted to expand his primary sources on Black history. “Jeunes Amis is not a black organization!” the curator was insulted. “Thommy Lafon [the organization’s founder] was not black. I am not black. Thommy Lafon would rise up from his grave in sheer anger if he ever knew that you had called us black! You will have to look elsewhere to find black history!” He thereupon ejected the researcher from the premises.69

Mother Henriette’s descendants and supporters have written letters to the Vatican as well as to local Church leaders, asking that the Church’s huge multimedia publicity campaign be corrected to refer to the proposed saint as “Creole,” “biracial,” “mixed,” or some other term closer to how the woman saw herself a century and a half ago.70 The Church has refused to change its course, suggesting that any media alteration would antagonize U.S. Blacks, the market at which the canonization is targeted. The only detailed explanation issued by the Church suggests that Mother Henriette’s “current ancestry” need not be the same as her original ancestry.71

Nevertheless, that the one-drop rule is often enforced in today’s United States does not necessarily confirm all of the scholarly opinions previously related. Academics are virtually unanimous that the one-drop rule is somehow connected to “racism” (defined as Whites mistreating Blacks). Some (Fields, Hickman) affirm that it is used today by “racist” Whites against Blacks. Others (D’Souza, Williamson, Waters, Davis, Lythcott-Haims, Hickman) say that it is used nowadays by Blacks to resist White “racism.” Nevertheless, some court decisions that enforce the one-drop rule seem to lack any trace of “racism.” Indeed, many lack any evidence of “racial” mistreatment of anyone by anyone.

In 1988, 39-year-old Mary Christine Walker, a Denver schoolteacher with fair complexion, green eyes, and light brown hair claimed on a job application to be Black. Her prospective employer obtained Ms. Walker’s birth certificate, found her listed there as “White,” and accused her of “lying to take advantage of minority-hiring policies.” Walker promptly filed suit in State District Court. She claimed to be Black, despite her looks. She said that her parents (allegedly, an interracial couple) had listed her as White on her birth certificate so that their daughter could take advantage of her European appearance when she grew up. Noting that Ms. Walker had the support of the Black community, Judge John Brooks Jr. on September 6, 1989, ordered the state Department of Vital Statistics to issue the woman a new birth certificate.72 In this case, a person of neither African appearance nor African-American ethnicity was ruled to be Black on the basis of a one-drop rule that was demanded by the individual and supported by local Black political leadership. It is hard to see any “racism” here, no matter how you define that slippery term.

The Scholarly Consensus is Unpersuasive

Ultimately, however, the consensus of scholarly conclusions is unpersuasive. It seems evident that many academics claim that the one-drop rule is hegemonic today, and that most see it as related to “racism.” They claim that the one-drop rule is used by Whites to apply “racism,” or by Blacks to resist “racism,” or that it somehow serves both purposes at once. But it is possible that such pronouncements reflect nothing more than that American scholars are members of U.S. society and, like it or not, they cannot help but partake of American racialism. Apparently, the one-drop rule is part of American culture, and so nearly every political camp feels compelled to defend it.

Skepticism towards their conclusions is unavoidable when many scholars morally advocate the one-drop rule. A legal scholar suggests that Americans who “pass”73 in defiance of the one-drop rule are guilty of “cultural genocide.”74 A historian sees “passing” as “a particularly ugly manifestation of [racism].”75 Another legal scholar writes, “[The] one drop rule united [the Negro] race as a people in the fight against slavery, segregation, and racial injustice.”76 The sociologist author of an outstanding overview of the multiracial movement of the 1990s writes that Americans who “pass” represent “psychosocial pathology” and are “insidious toxins in the racial ecology,” “fraudulent,” and “racial thieves.”77

Many American scholars who avoid expressing moral judgment cannot help but let slip subconscious support of the American one-drop rule. A sociologist who collected evidence that many genetically biracial students self-identify as “White” reports his discovery with the following words: “There exists a growing proportion of the black population who no longer view themselves as black.”78 Read that last quotation again. Compare it to the hypothetical, “a growing proportion of the Republican Party no longer view themselves as Republicans.” The researcher labels his subjects a “proportion of the black population” despite their refusal to see themselves thus. Although the topic is voluntary self-identity, the very phrase used, “a proportion of the black population,” involuntarily assigns the subjects to a group. It is imposed by the researcher’s own subconscious commitment to the one-drop rule.

A legal scholar without psychological credentials reports that people of dual genetic heritage who do not identify as solely “Black” are “in denial,” and suffer from psychosocial marginalization.79 (In fact, psychological studies show that young adults who consider themselves biracial or multiracial are “generally well adjusted.”80) A journalism professor, who is sympathetic to White subjects who have some Black ancestry, nevertheless describes their lives as “painful deceit-ridden contortions.”81 She also says that Eston Hemings’s direct descendants “for the last couple of centuries” have merely “lived as white.”82

A philosophy professor discussing a White young man with invisible Black ancestry says, “it would be nice to think that Matthews’s friends would have come around to accepting that he was black.”83 The point is that he was not Black. One of his parents self-identified as Black (as Carol Channing’s paternal grandparents did). An anthropologist suggested that White Americans who ignore traces of Black ancestry are “not firmly anchored emotionally….”84 A prize-winning historian in discussing the rise of the one-drop rule in the Jim Crow South writes, “They began to look with great suspicion upon mulattoes who looked white…”85

The Future

Ultimately, the most persuasive evidence is first-hand evidence. Is U.S. belief in a one-drop rule of invisible Blackness becoming more widespread or is it declining? One way of measuring the tenacity of the one-drop-rule is by examining how Black/White interracial parents identify their children on the census “race” question. Such couples are not typical of most Americans. Nevertheless, if interracial parents accept the legitimacy of African-American ethnic self-identity while simultaneously rejecting the one-drop rule, you would expect half of their children to be identified as White and half as Black. That the children of Black/White interracial parents have been more often identified as Black than as White since 1880 demonstrates that the one-drop rule has been accepted for many decades. In fact, the fraction of such children labeled as unmixed White has fallen steadily from 50 percent in 1940 to 13 percent in 2000. This suggests that the one-drop rule continues to grow stronger among Black/White interracial parents. On the other hand, the fraction of such children labeled as unmixed Black dropped abruptly from 62 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2000. This suggests that it has recently become unfashionable to make first-generation biracial children deny their European ancestry. Whether this portends a crack in the one-drop rule remains to be seen.

Interracially married couples are not typical of most Americans. Indeed, the very definition of the U.S. color line is that it denotes membership in a strongly endogamous group. As of the 2000 census, less than four percent of married Blacks had a White spouse, a much lower out-marriage rate than that of any other U.S. ethnic boundary. Black/White interracial couples represent the tiny fraction of Americans who are willing to defy convention; who withstand pressure from friends and families on both sides. One would expect such parents to be less likely than most Americans to use a one-drop rule, especially when assigning “racial” identity to their own children.

If interracial parents accept the legitimacy of African-American ethnic self-identity while simultaneously rejecting the one-drop rule, you would expect half of their children to be identified as White and half as Black. This is independent of where the endogamous color line happens to lie along the phenotype continuum. In times and places, like 1930 Virginia, where dark Mediterranean looks could label one as Black, couples might be recorded in the census as intermarried if one were merely too swarthy for acceptance as White. In times and places, like 1850 South Carolina, where well-to-do people of visibly part-African appearance were considered White, couples would be recorded as intermarried only if the darker were very African-looking indeed.86 Regardless of social convention, the laws of genetics predict that half of their children would inherit an appearance between the parents, one fourth would look more European than both, and one-fourth would look more African than both.87 Given that children are evaluated by the same color-line criterion as their parents, wherever the line happens to be located along the phenotype continuum, then half of the children will look as White or Whiter than the White parent and half will look as Black or Blacker than the Black parent.88 In short, if there were no one-drop rule then one would expect half of such first-generation biracial children to be seen as White and half as Black.

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Figure 1. White Children of B/W Intermarriages

That the children of Black/White interracial parents have been more often identified as Black than as White since 1880 demonstrates that the one-drop rule has been accepted for many decades. The chart at left shows, for each census since 1880, the percentage of first-generation biracial children who were recorded as White:89 The chart of Figure 1, “White Children of B/W Intermarriages,” shows that the fraction of such children labeled as only White has fallen steadily from 50 percent in 1940 to 13 percent in 2000. This suggests that the one-drop rule continues to grow ever stronger among Black/White interracial parents.

On the other hand, as shown in the chart at right, Figure 2, “Black Children of Interracial Marriages,” the fraction of such children labeled as Black only (with no admixture) dropped abruptly from 62 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2000.

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Figure 2. Black Children of B/W Intermarriages

That the fraction of White-labeled children and that of Black-labeled children have both fallen since 1990 indicates that, whereas the one-drop rule may continue in strength, discontinuity is weakening. Growing numbers of interracially married parents are rejecting the idea of having only two choices. The next chart, “First-Generation Biracial Children’s Identity” shows, for each census decade since 1960, the percentage of children whose parents rejected a binary choice, either writing in “multiracial,” “biracial,” “none-of-the-above,” or by checking multiple boxes. In 1960, parents were not allowed to check off “other,” nor to write something in. They had to pick one and only one of the given choices. In 1970, for the first time, they were allowed to choose “other.” In that census, four percent of first-generation biracial children were reported as neither Black nor White. In 1980, this number had grown to eight percent, and many parents checked both boxes, despite this being explicitly forbidden by the instructions. By 1990, the number who rejected discontinuity had grown to thirteen percent. In 2000, for the first time, parents were allowed to check multiple boxes, and millions of parents jumped at the opportunity. In this census, well over half (56 percent) of first-generation biracial children were coded as belonging simultaneously to both “races.”

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Figure 3. First-Generation Biracial Children’s Identity

This suggests that it has recently become unfashionable to make first-generation biracial youngsters deny their European ancestry. Discontinuity seems to be losing its grip on the American psyche. On the other hand, whether the growing popularity of reporting such children to the census by checking off both boxes portends a crack in the one-drop rule, remains to be seen. As shown in Figure 3, “First-Generation Biracial Children’s Identity,” of the 44 percent of interracially married parents who check off only one box for their children, three times as many (31 percent) of these parents say that their kids are only Black, than those who say that their children are only White (13 percent).

In short, there is little evidence that the U.S. endogamous color line itself is weakening significantly.90 Nevertheless, the evidence of how interracial couples label their children for the census suggests that Blackness may be in the process of shifting more towards voluntary ethnic self-identity, rather than a mandatory involuntary membership in an endogamous group. At least this may be the case for people of only imperceptible or slight African ancestry. This may weaken the one-drop rule.

On the other hand, you can reap financial gain by “outing” as “Black” someone who is no longer alive to defend himself (Audubon, Broyard, the Healys, Davis) or herself (Phipps, Delille). Hence, authors will undoubtedly continue to pique reader interest with tales that so-and-so was actually Black and only pretended to be White. After all, the potential number of such revelations is vast. Every year, between 0.10 and 0.14 percent of formerly Black-labeled youngsters switch to calling themselves Hispanic or White after high school. This comes to between 35,000 and 50,000 individuals who switch “race” every year. It means that just over 2,000,000 White American adults alive today started life as Black children. Add up the numbers since 1850, and about 9,000,000 Americans took this step over the past century and a half. Their 74,000,000 White descendants, on average, have the genetic equivalent of one pureblooded African ancestor within the past 120 years.91

* * * * *

This essay defined the one-drop rule as hypodescent taken to absurd conclusion. It surveyed the writings of about two-dozen scholars to reveal a clear academic consensus that the one-drop rule is alive and well. It presented several examples of recent cases to show that the one-drop rule is routinely rejected, as well as other examples showing that it is equally often enforced. It explained that moral positioning and subconscious convictions make unsubstantiated assertions suspect. Finally, it examined census data on how interracial parents label their children to conclude that the one-drop rule may possibly become less fashionable, although advocating it will continue to be profitable.

Click here for an animated cartoon version of this topic, part 1.
Click here for an animated cartoon version of this topic, part 2.


1 The Malones’ story can be found in newspaper articles spanning a one-year period: Peggy Hernandez, “Two Fight Firing over Disputed Claim They are Black,” (The Boston Globe, September 29, 1988); Peggy Hernandez, “Firemen Who Claimed to be Black Lose Appeal,” (The Boston Globe, July 26, 1989).

2 See the opening anecdote of the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.

3 Naomi Zack, Thinking About Race (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998), 116.

4 Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1964), 37.

5 Whether distinguishing marks really exist is best addressed by considering that about 30 percent of today’s White Americans and virtually all Hispanics have measurable recent African genetic admixture. If there were any such marks, they would be visible in one White American out of every three. See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.

6 Scott L. Malcomson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000), 356.

7 Gary B. Mills, The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1977), 193; Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 101; Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: Free Press, 1980), 2; James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Dell, 1962), 19.

8 Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both (Cambridge: Harvard university, 1997), 247.

9 Hilary Beckles, “Black Men in White Skins: The Formation of a White Proletariat in West Indian Society,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History October, no. 15 (1986): 5-21.

10 F. James Davis, Who is Black?: One Nation’s Definition (University Park PA: State University of Pennsylvania, 1991), 13-34; Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1971).

11 University of Chicago, ed. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15 ed. (Chicago: William Benton, 1974), 11:820; 7:1125; 15:308-9; iii:700. For Queen Charlotte, see also [www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/royalfamily.html] by PBS research historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom. For Audubon, see Kathryn Hall Proby, Audubon in Florida (Coral Gables FL: University of Miami, 1974), 5. Incidentally, Audubon’s work often shows up in modern-day exhibits of Black art. See, for example, the touring exhibit, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” as described in Diana Loercher, “Black Art Exhibit,” The Ann Arbor News, July 27 1977, B5.

12 Although Dumas was sometimes referred to as “mulatto.”

13 Naomi Zack, Thinking About Race (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998), 5.

14 Idem.

15 Neil Gotanda, “A Critique of ‘Our Constitution is Color-Blind’,” Stanford Law Review 44, no. 1 (1991): 1-68, 24.

16 Ibid., 26.

17 Michael L. Blakey, “Scientific Racism and the Biological Concept of Race,” Literature and Psychology 1999, no. 1/2 (1999): 29, 36.

18 Julie C. Lythcott-Haims, “Where Do Mixed Babies Belong: Racial Classification in America and Its Implications for Transracial Adoption,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 29 (1994): 531-58, 532, 539.

19 Christine Hickman, “The Devil and the One Drop Rule,” Michigan Law Review 95, no. 5 (1997): 1161-1265, 1163.

20 David A. Hollinger, “Amalgamation and Hypodescent: The Question of Ethnoracial Mixture in the History of the United States,” American Historical Review 108, no. 5 (2003): 1363-90, 1368.

21 Thomas E. Skidmore, “Racial Mixture and Affirmative Action: The Cases of Brazil and the United States,” American Historical Review 108, no. 5 (2003): 1391-6, 139.

22 G. Reginald Daniel, More than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2002), 19.

23 F. James Davis, Who is Black?: One Nation’s Definition (University Park PA: State University of Pennsylvania, 1991), 5.

24 Joe R. Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York: Routledge, 2000), 200-1.

25 Ian F. Haney-Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University, 1996), 27.

26 As quoted in David L. Brunsma and Kerry Ann Rockquemore, “What Does ‘Black’ Mean? Exploring the Epistemological Stranglehold of Racial Categorization,” Critical Sociology 28, no. 1/2 (2002): 101-121, 104.

27 As quoted in Brunsma (2002), 108.

28 As quoted in Brunsma (2002), 104.

29 Barbara Fields, “Of Rogues and Geldings,” American Historical Review 108, no. 5 (2003): 1397-405, 1404.

30 Christine Hickman, “The Devil and the One Drop Rule,” Michigan Law Review 95, no. 5 (1997): 1161-1265, 1166.

31 Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism (New York: Free Press, 1995), 205.

32 Ibid., 204.

33 Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: Free Press, 1980), 2.

34 Mary C. Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (Berkeley: University of California, 1990), 18.

35 F. James Davis, Who is Black?: One Nation’s Definition (University Park PA: State University of Pennsylvania, 1991), 137-39.

36 Julie C. Lythcott-Haims, “Where Do Mixed Babies Belong-Racial Classification in America and Its Implications for Transracial Adoption,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 29 (1994): 531-58, 533.

37 Christine Hickman, “The Devil and the One Drop Rule,” Michigan Law Review 95, no. 5 (1997): 1161-1265, 1166.

38 Debra J. Dickerson, The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners, 1st ed. (New York: Pantheon, 2004), 15.

39 Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism (New York: Free Press, 1995), 205.

40 As of July 1, 2003, by http://www.mixedfolks.com/africans.htm and http://www.multiracial.com/links/links-celebrities.html provide links to hundreds of such sites. See also topic “How Can so Many People Falsify Their Paper Trail and Cut all Family Ties?” in the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”

41 See discussion of this point in Brunsma (2002), 100.

42 Ibid., 108n7.

43 Ibid., 335.

44 Ibid., 110.

45 F. James Davis, Who is Black?: One Nation’s Definition (University Park PA: State University of Pennsylvania, 1991), 99.

46 Ibid., 176.

47 Melanie D. G. Kaplan, “Different Strokes,” USA Weekend, June 20-22 2003, 10.

48 195 S.C. 1. The story is related in detail as the opening anecdote of the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”

49 Luther Wright, Jr., “Who’s Black, Who’s White, and Who Cares: Reconceptualizing the United States’s Definition of Race and Racial Classifications,” Vanderbilt Law Review 48, no. 2 (1995): 513-70, 535.

50 Employer Information Report EEO-1 and Standard Form 100, Appendix § 4, Race/Ethnic Identification, 1 Empl. Prac. Guide (CCH) § 1881, (1981), 1625.

51 Borgna Brunner, ed. Time Almanac: The Ultimate Worldwide Fact and Information Source (Boston: Information Please LLC, 1999) 364.

52 For arguments that the term “minority” is deliberately crafted to be ambiguous, see Peter J. Aspinall, “Collective Terminology to Describe the Minority Ethnic Population: The Persistence of Confusion and Ambiguity in Usage,” Sociology 36, no. 4 (2002): 803-16 and Phillip Gleason, “Minorities (Almost) All: The Minority Concept in American Social Thought,” American Quarterly 43, no. 3 (1991): 392-424.

53 See http://edition.cnn.com/US/9707/16/racial.suit. As mentioned above, the letter of EEOC regulations speaks only to a person’s continent of origin, not to their ethnic allegiance. Nevertheless, courts often enforced the “spirit” (that affirmative action does not apply to recent African immigrants) and ignore the letter of the law.

54 The detailed story of Stebbins’s election and recall can be found in a nine-month-long series of newswire reports: AP, “Defeated Councilman Says Winner Lied About Being Black,” (AP Domestic News, March 10, 1984); UPI, “Black or White? Race Becomes Political Issue,” (UPI Domestic News, April 19, 1984); UPI, “Race the Major Issue in Recall Election,” (UPI Domestic News, May 8, 1984); AP, “City Council Recall Vote Hinges on Councilman’s Race,” (AP Domestic News, May 8, 1984); UPI, “Candidate’s Race a Major Issue in Recall Election,” (UPI Domestic News, May 8, 1984); AP, “‘Black’ Councilman Retains Seat,” (AP Domestic News, May 9, 1984); AP, “‘Culturally Black’ Councilman Keeps His Seat,” (AP Domestic News, May 9, 1984); UPI, “Green-Eyed ‘Black’ Man Wins Recall Election,” (UPI Domestic News, May 9, 1984); AP, “‘Culturally Black’ Councilman Defeated,” (AP Domestic News, December 20, 1984).

55 This sentence, of course, reveals the AP staffer’s own ideas about race. The 46 percent “Hispanic” (versus 8 percent “white”) is questionable because over ninety percent of those who identify themselves as “Hispanic” in the U.S. census also report themselves as “White” (or an equivalent) on the same census form. And, according to Yu Xie and Kimberly Goyette, “The Racial Identification of Biracial Children with One Asian Parent: Evidence from the 1990 Census,” Social Forces 76, no. 2 (1997): 547-70, most Americans of mixed Euro-Asian parentage (like Keanu Reeves, say) also consider themselves to be census White.

56 Brunsma (2002), 108.

57 479 So. 2d 369; 485 So. 2d 60.

58 479 U.S. 1002.

59 231 So. 2d 730.

60 A.D. Powell, “When Are Irish-Americans Not Good Enough to Be Irish-American?: ‘Racial Kidnaping’ and the Case of the Healy Family,” Interracial Voice, November 1998, available from http://interracialvoice.com/powell8.html.

61 See Black Catholics in the United States, a Vatican publicity handout for Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United Nations in October, 1995 at http://shamino.quincy.edu/tolton/black.html, also available from NCCB Secretariat for African American Catholics, 3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017, (202) 541-3177.

62 See Georgetown University, Rev. Patrick F. Healy, SJ Papers: Collection Description at http://gulib.lausun.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/cl57.htm.

63 James M. O’Toole, “Racial Identity and the Case of Captain Michael Healy, USRCS,” Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives & Records Administration 29, no. 3 (1997).

64 A.D. Powell, “Pissing on the Graves of Heroes,” Interracial Voice, May 2003, available from http://interracialvoice.com/powell14.html.

65 For a detailed account of this phenomenon, see James E. DeVries, Race and Kinship in a Midwestern town: The Black Experience in Monroe, Michigan, 1900-1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1984), 150.

66 A.D. Powell, Interracial Voice, May 2003.

67 Literally, “free people of color.” In practice, the term refers to members of the Louisiana Creole community who, even today, adamantly refuse to self-identify racially. They insist that they are neither Black nor White.

68 Marion L. Ferreira, “The Misidentification of Mother Henriette Delille,” The Multiracial Activist, August 2002, available from http://www.multiracial.com/readers/ferreira.html.

69 Virginia R. Dominguez, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University, 1986), 163.

70 Marion L. Ferreira, “Mother Henriette Delille & The One-Drop Rule — Alive and Well?,” Interracial Voice, January 2003, available from http://interracialvoice.com/marion.html; Susanne M.J. Heine, “To the Most Reverend Alfred C. Hughes,” Interracial Voice, January 2003, available from http://interracialvoice.com/sheine8.html; John O. Sarpy, “An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Catholic Church Regarding the Racial/Cultural Labeling of Mother Henriette Delille,” Interracial Voice, January 2003, available from http://interracialvoice.com/sarpy2.html; John O. Sarpy, “An open letter to Most Reverend Alfred C. Hughes,” Interracial Voice, January 2003, available from http://interracialvoice.com/sarpy.html.

71 Marion L. Ferreira, “A Letter to the Pope and an Archbishop’s Racist Reply,” Interracial Voice, January 2003, available from http://interracialvoice.com/marion2.html.

72 AP, “Rewriting Her Story,” The National Law Journal (1989): 51.

73 Passing (definition): a White American is discovered to have a Black-identified parent.

74 Neil Gotanda, “A Critique of ‘Our Constitution is Color-Blind’,” Stanford Law Review 44, no. 1 (1991): 1-68, 59-60.

75 Barbara Fields, “Of Rogues and Geldings,” American Historical Review 108, no. 5 (2003): 1397-405, 1404.

76 Christine Hickman, “The Devil and the One Drop Rule,” Michigan Law Review 95, no. 5 (1997): 1161-1265, 1163.

77 G. Reginald Daniel, More than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2002), 8, 83, 111.

78 David L. Brunsma and Kerry Ann Rockquemore, “What Does ‘Black’ Mean? Exploring the Epistemological Stranglehold of Racial Categorization,” Critical Sociology 28, no. 1/2 (2002): 101-121,114.

79 Bijan Gilanshah, “Multiracial Minorities: Erasing the Color Line,” Law and Inequality 12 (1993): 183, 190.

80 See particularly Christine Hall (1980) and Alvin Pouissant (1987), as quoted in Maria P.P. Root, “Resolving ‘Other’ Status: Identity Development of Biracial Individuals,” Women and Therapy 9 (1990): 185-205, 186.

81 Brooke Kroeger, Passing: When People Can’t be Who They Are (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), 9.

82 Ibid., 28.

83 Ibid., 22.

84 Ibid., 15.

85 Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black/White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University, 1984), 465.

86 For details on antebellum South Carolina’s darkward-shifted color line, see the essay Barbadian South Carolina: A Class-Based Color Line.

87 Assuming that both parents are not homozygotic at the three-to-six pairs of loci governing skin tone. See the essay The Heredity of “Racial” Traits.

88 For an introduction to the genetics of “racial” appearance, see Curt Stern, Principles of Human Genetics, 3d ed. (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1973), 443-52; or L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and W. F. Bodmer, The Genetics of Human Populations (Mineola NY: Dover, 1999), 527-31.

89 For the methodology used in arriving at the data shown in Figures 1, 2 and 3, see section “The Identity of First-Generation Biracial Children” in http://backintyme.com/rawdata/appendixa.doc, Census Data Processing Methodology.

90 See the topic “The Future” in the essay Features of the Endogamous Color Line.

91 See the essays: Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States, The Heredity of “Racial” Traits, The Perception of “Racial” Traits, and The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”

92 See the opening anecdote of the essay How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s.


Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.


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