Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
July 1, 2005
n May 8, 2003, Halle Berry won an Academy Award for her performance as an executed murderer’s widow in the Lion’s Gate film Monster’s Ball. In her acceptance speech, Ms. Berry said that her nomination and triumph as a female member of the Black endogamous group showed how far all members of that group had advanced towards acceptance in the entertainment industry. She said that she accepted the award on behalf of all of the members of her “race” who had struggled before her and prepared the way. In return, she looked forward to paving the way for future Black actresses. Her award, she said, was “for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”1 As she spoke, the television cameras focused on the beaming face of Ms. Berry’s mother, tearfully joyous that her daughter had reached the pinnacle of her chosen career. Probably not one U.S. viewer in a hundred saw anything incongruous about the heart-tugging moment. Probably not one viewer in a hundred who was watching from another country realized that the smiling blonde, fair-skinned woman in the audience was Halle Berry’s biological mother. The few people in other countries who were in the know undoubtedly shook their heads at one more example of Americans’ idiosyncratic denial of mixed Afro-European ancestry. The oddity is not that a European-looking woman gives birth to a woman of mixed heritage. The oddity is that mother and daughter are seen as members of different endogamous groups.
* * * * *
In order to grasp just how unusual is America’s endogamous color line, consider it abstractly. Many newcomers to the United States, especially Hispanics, find it astonishing that an endogamous community of apparently African appearance has somehow perpetuated itself (or has been perpetuated) in North America for over three centuries, despite Africans having been a demographic minority. Such a thing happened nowhere else on the planet. America’s color line (and its consequent one-drop rule) is a puzzle. It is self-contradictory and counterfactual, and yet many Americans believe it with intensity. It was invented just four centuries ago and has shifted over the years, and yet many think of it as eternal and unchanging. It is based on the assumption that White Americans have no recent African ancestry, and yet, as explained in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States, DNA studies show without doubt that White Americans, like all other New World populations, are a mix of European, Native American, and, yes, African ancestry. The phenomenon cries out for historical explanation.
The U.S. color line is self-contradictory because it is asymmetrical. Most Americans (Black and White) consider it unremarkable when a White mother gives birth to a Black child (if her husband is Black, say). And yet some sincerely think it impossible (“genetically impossible,” some insist) for a Black woman to bear a White child, regardless of the father. The color line is counterfactual because the same degree of mixed Afro-European heritage that makes Americans (Black and White) see someone named John Smith as being of the Black “race” causes them to see the same person as being of the Hispanic “race” if named Juan Pérez. Scholars agree that the color line was invented in the late seventeenth century, and yet many Americans (Black and White) debate whether Hannibal or Nefertiti were Black or White. That the color line is believed intensely is exemplified by college application forms with five “race” check-off boxes (White, Black, Asian, Native American, Hispanic), next to the printed warning that, “if the applicant fails to check a box, or checks more than one box, this application will be discarded unread.”2
Draw a path on the globe from Norway to Nigeria. Walk along that path and you will notice that most folks at the northern end have fair (pinkish-beige) skin tone, blonde hair, and blue eyes. As you travel south through the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, peoples’ skin, hair and eyes get darker. Continue south through Spain, and skin tone gets darker yet—almost light brown. By the time you reach the Mediterranean, hair is mostly black with reddish highlights and blue eyes are rare. Take the ferry to Tangier and hike into the Sahara. Complexions gradually shade from medium to dark brown and hair becomes nearly black. Continue south though Mali, Upper Volta, and Dahomey and you notice that almost everyone is dark brown with black hair and eyes. When you reach Lagos, you will find that most people’s skin and eyes are very dark brown indeed and their hair is black. Other features also changed slowly along your journey, hair became curlier, noses became wider.
The U.S. endogamous color line is rhetorically based on the notion that somewhere along the path of gradually darkening skin tone from Norway to Nigeria lies a border separating White people from Black. In other words, the U.S. system of two endogamous groups assumes that some people are predestined by God or nature to become members of one or the other of America’s two groups. There is no real boundary, of course; change is imperceptible at every step. Nevertheless, U.S. folklore upholds four beliefs:
- Discontinuity – A single color line exists.
- Endogamy – People should not marry across it.
- Impermeability – You cannot switch sides from Black to White.
- Hypodescent – If you have a parent who is a member of the Black endogamous group then you are Black also, no matter your preference or even your appearance.
Other nations have caste systems and “racial” beliefs but, regarding Africans and Europeans, all differ from the United States in at least one of those four ways. Consider each of the four features in detail.
The human species diversified after colonizing the planet from an origin in Africa about 60 millennia ago. East Asians developed an epicanthic eyelid fold, Europeans lost dermal melanin, Amerinds lost genetic variation.3 Explorers and merchants have noted such differences throughout recorded history. Geneticists have observed that wherever different people come into contact and both survive the impact, mixed children are born spanning a continuum of genetic admixture.4
“Discontinuity” denotes the practice of socially categorizing the actual human genetic continuum into discrete groups. The United States is unique in that its color line divides Americans into only two groups separated by a single endogamous barrier. Most stratified societies imagine three groups: the two original parent groups, plus a third (hybrid) group comprising the mixed descendants of both parent groups. Furthermore, most stratified societies perceive the hybrid group as distinct from both parent groups. And so, stratified societies are typically made up of three endogamous groups. These are: high-status original parent group “A,” low-status original parent group “B,” and hybrid group “AB” (the mixed descendants of both parent groups).
Where societies differ is in the social rank or status that they attribute to the hybrid group “AB.” In some stratified societies, the hybrid group occupies the lowest social rank or status, inferior to both of the parent groups. In other stratified societies, the hybrid group occupies an intermediate rank, lower than group A, say, but higher or more prestigious than group B. Finally, in some stratified societies, the hybrid group (the mixed descendants of both parent groups) becomes the uppermost group, superior to both of the original parent groups. Consider examples of each.
In Haiti and Mexico today, hybrids are seen as higher status than both parent groups. Haitians of unmixed European ancestry (a few Lebanese and Syrian shopkeepers) are not allowed to own Haitian real estate and so cannot legally vote.5 In Mexico, the population is mainly a genetic blend of European (presumably Spanish) and Native American. Spanish rule was overthrown in 1821. The Spanish-Amerind hybrid group (Mestizos) took power and disenfranchised the remaining Spanish colonists. Europeans regained power briefly during Austrian Archduke Maximilian’s French-backed regime of 1864-67, but lost it again thereafter.6 (Incidentally, Afro-Mexicans vanished through genetic assimilation before the nineteenth century; alleles for African appearance are now dispersed throughout Mexico’s population.7)
In Uganda, Canada, India, and Southeast Asia, the hybrid groups occupy a lower rank than either parent group. In Uganda, people of mixed Afro-European ancestry are regarded with condescension and contempt by the Ganda tribes, but are not accepted by European society either. The government once considered a plan to solve the problem by removing all biracials to an island in Lake Victoria where they could be completely isolated.8 The Métis of Canada, the Anglo-Indians of India, Korean-Americans in Korea, and Vietnamese-Americans in Vietnam are also relegated to the bottom rung. The Métis sprang from seventeenth century unions between Amerind women and French or Scottish trappers in the Canadian wilderness. They developed a strong cultural identity, wore a distinctive sash, and danced their unique Red River jig. They were once considered superior to Amerinds, and worked as buffalo hunters, interpreters, guides, or transporting supplies for the Hudson’s Bay Company by canoe or in distinctive carts. Their downfall came when Canada acquired and settled the Hudson Bay territory and railroads ended their livelihood. After failed rebellions in 1870 and 1884, they became outcasts from both European and Amerind cultures. Today, they number about 750,000 and remain desperately poor with high unemployment, welfare dependency, crime, school dropout, and alcoholism.9
In the late seventeenth century, Britain’s colonial administration in India encouraged intermarriage. Anglo-Indians received hiring preference and many became officials in the bureaucracy. Some even married British nobility. Two centuries later, when intermarriage came into disfavor, they became outcasts, avoided by Indians and Europeans alike. They saw themselves as English and wore English clothes, but the British ignored them. Furthermore, their desperate efforts to become accepted into mainstream British society made natives within the Hindu caste system even more contemptuous of them. Many fled to Australia, Africa, or England when the British pulled out of India. The 250,000 who remained are now a despised out-group. In the traditional Hindu caste system, there is no place for those of mixed blood. 10 And, although the Hindu caste system has been legally abolished in India, it still has enormous social effect.11
In Vietnam and Korea, citizenship is based on the father, not the mother. Unknown thousands of Korean-American children and about 80,000 Vietnamese-American children were abandoned in Asia after American soldiers left. Adults now, neither they nor their patrilineal offspring can aspire to civil rights in their own land. Exceptions occur only when the American father claims his child, and jumps through Southeast Asian and U.S. State Department bureaucratic hoops to obtain U.S. visas.12
In South Africa and the British West Indies, biracials form an intermediate group whose status within the middle group, as well as their promotion or demotion between groups, depends on their “racial” appearance.13 Apartheid South Africa enforced segregation and endogamy between each of its three groups: Black, White, and Coloured. This often confused American visitors, members of the U.S. Black endogamous group, who tried to associate with locals who were members of South Africa’s Black group. The problem was that the Black group in the United States includes what South Africans consider two distinct groups, Black plus Coloured. In apartheid South Africa, association between members of the Black and Coloured endogamous groups was forbidden. Even today, after the ending of apartheid, South Africa’s three endogamous groups, whose segregation was formerly enforced by criminal law, have become three separate appearance-based political blocs whose segregation is enforced by social custom.
Coloured people in the British West Indies also form an intermediate group between Europeans and those of strong African appearance. Status within the group and movement between groups were never as institutionalized as in South Africa. Nevertheless, their membership criteria differ both from the United States and from South Africa. Europeans in the British West Indies often marry locals who physically appear to be European but have known partial African ancestry. Similarly, White clubs were closed to members of the Coloured group in the early colonial period, and members of this middle group were not allowed to vote, hold public office, hold military commissions, marry members of the White group, or inherit significant property from a member of the White group. But by the year 1733, these restrictions had been lifted for the intermediate group in Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad. They were retained for their respective Black groups until the twentieth century.14
Legislation, court decisions, and social custom in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados treated members of the Coloured group as distinct from members of the Black group.15 According to one scholar, “The English… encountered the problem of race mixture in very different contexts in their several colonies; they answered it in one fashion in their West Indian islands, and in quite another in their colonies on the continent,” and, “The contrast offered by the West Indies is striking.”16 In post-emancipation Jamaica, the beleaguered White population allied with the Coloured elite (the descendants of the famous Maroons) to keep down the free Blacks.17 A Barbadian historian wrote, “In August 1838, some 83,000 blacks, 12,000 coloureds, and 15,000 whites, embarked on a social course which the ruling elite hoped to charter.”18 A historian of Trinidad wrote, “The people of colour were marginal to Caribbean society: neither black nor white, neither African nor European….”19 Today, West Indian immigrants to England assimilate into mainstream society within a generation or two. There is no endogamous color line in Great Britain today.20
Finally, Latin American societies, including those of the Spanish Caribbean, have always lacked endogamous color lines. Every Hispanic resides on an Afro-Amerind-European continuum where status depends on wealth, breeding, education, and political power as well as phenotype. Latin American countries typically have three economic classes: A lower class of agricultural peasants and urban poor; a middle class of landowning farmers and urban craftsmen; and an upper class of wealthy professionals, educators, or the politically powerful. The structure has a strong hereditary component. It is rigid, offers little social mobility, and is often harsh or unjust. Nevertheless, despite significant class/skin-tone correlation, it has no color line in the sense of endogamy.21 Enforced endogamy is impossible in Latin America because nearly every Hispanic has immediate blood relatives who are more African-looking and others who are more European-looking than himself. Puerto Rico’s dialect of Spanish contains about a dozen words to denote various blends of Afro-European appearance: prieto, criollo, blanquito, mulato, moreno, trigueño, mestizo, jabao, marrano, etc. Yet, neither private sector documents (social club applications, job applications) nor government documents (public school registration, birth certificates, census forms) on the island have any category for “race.”22
The above is not meant to be an exhaustive survey of endogamous systems around the world. Other societies, such as Japan, India, and New Zealand, have endogamous groups. The intent was merely to offer a few examples of variations in discontinuity so as to compare and contrast the U.S. system of two endogamous groups with three-group systems and with societies of mixed ancestry that lack endogamous groups altogether.
Endogamy is what defines “Black” and “White” in the United States. This is not the same thing as determining to which group you are assigned by society. As will be explained shortly, Americans at different times and places have used several methods of assigning endogamous group membership: appearance, blood-fraction, association, class. But endogamy is what defines the very groups themselves. In other words, if U.S. society considers you a suitable marriage partner for people on the White side of the color line, then you are White by definition. You may have a dark brown skin tone (like many East Indians, for example) or have recent African genetic admixture (like 74 million White Americans), or have openly acknowledged African ancestry (like many Hispanic celebrities), but if you are seen as marriageable by Whites but not by Blacks then you are termed “White” nonetheless. Similarly, you may have a pink skin-tone (like famed NAACP Secretary Walter White), have no measurable African genetic admixture (like five percent of America’s Blacks), and deny having any Black ancestry (as Anatole Broyard did, according to Henry Louis Gates23), but if you are seen as marriageable by Blacks but not by Whites then you are labeled as “Black” nonetheless. As mentioned, just which rules U.S. society uses to assign someone to one group or the other will be discussed momentarily. For now, consider the endogamous color line itself.
Endogamy is important because intermarriage measures acceptance. Lack of intermarriage reveals (reveals, not causes) social ostracism. Social ostracism leads to alienation, then to disdain, then, to contempt, then to oppression. A half-century ago, Gunnar Myrdal wrote:
The ban on intermarriage has the highest place in the white man’s rank order of social segregation and discrimination. Sexual segregation is the most pervasive form of segregation, and the concern about “race purity” is, in a sense, basic. No other way of crossing the color line is so attended by the emotion commonly associated with violating a social taboo as intermarriage and extra-marital relations between a Negro man and a white woman. No excuse for other forms of social segregation and discrimination is so potent as the one that sociable relations on an equal basis between members of the two races may possibly lead to intermarriage.24
The right to attend birthday parties, weddings, funerals, picnics, and the like cannot be legislated. Folks invite other folks over based on neighborliness. Parents welcome daughters’ suitors and sons’ girlfriends into their parlors based on friendship and social equality. Such social intercourse is routinely taken for granted today between Irish-Americans and English-Americans though it would have been inconceivable in 1860. As measured by intermarriage, such social intercourse has been virtually nil between white and black America. Anthropologists agree that intermarriage is the ultimate expression of mutual acceptance between societies.
The importance of [intermarriage] cannot be overstated. The family is the primary social unit in society, and as families mix, so do other institutions. In other words, intermarriage is the ultimate form of ethnic assimilation.25
Or, as Milton M. Gordon puts it:
Recent studies have pointed to the role of intimate equal-status contact between members of majority and minority groups in reducing prejudice. Structural separation, by definition, denotes a situation in which primary group contacts between members of various ethnic groups are held to a minimum, even though secondary contacts on the job, on the civic scene, and in other areas of impersonal contact may abound. In view of the tendency of human beings to categorize in their psychic perceptions and reactions and to form in-groups and, frequently, out-groups on the basis of familiar experiences and contacts, it may plausibly be argues that just as intimate primary group relations tend to reduce prejudice, a lack of such contacts tends to produce hostile ethnic attitudes.26
As shown in the figure at left, the out-marriage rate of U.S. Blacks is 3.9 percent as of the 2000 census, and today’s rate is the historical maximum. From 1870 through 1970, it languished below one percent. In most other former slave-owning countries, there is no endogamous color line. Marriages between those of different degrees of African genetic admixture are either as common as those between people of similar degrees African genetic admixture. Marriages between people of preponderantly European genetic admixture and those of mainly African genetic admixture in Morocco, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Brazil, or the Mascarene Islands occur at the 24-40 percent rate typical of ethnic or cultural groups undergoing acculturation (e.g.: Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad).27
The contrast with other U.S. ethnic groups is also striking. Today, about 60 percent of U.S. Hispanics marry non-Hispanics. The exogamy (out-marriage) rate of Amerinds is 54 percent. Irish-, German-, and Polish-American exogamy is at 50 percent. About 45 percent of Italian- and Japanese-Americans marry others, and 40 per cent of Jews marry Christians. 29 The intense endogamy of U.S. Blacks is as unique among ethnic groups within the United States as it is among other nations.
One might ask whether the fact (discussed in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States) that thirty percent of members of the White endogamous group have significant African genetic admixture, and that over five percent of members of the Black endogamous group have no African genetic admixture does not suggest that U.S. exogamy is actually higher that the 3.9 percent reported to the census. But this confuses endogamous group membership with genetic admixture. Endogamous group membership is assigned by society, once enforced by criminal legislation, and nowadays enforced via peer pressure from both groups.30 It is measured today by voluntary census data recorded by the head of household. It was measured before 1950 by involuntary census data recorded by a census taker. Measured thus, the exogamy rate is extraordinarily low, much lower than in other countries, much lower than among other U.S. ethnic groups.
Genetic admixture, on the other hand, is the result of African alleles slowly leaking through the endogamous color line over centuries. Most members of the U.S. Black endogamous group are of mostly African genetic admixture. And most members of the U.S. White endogamous group are of mainly European admixture. Indeed, seventy percent of Whites have no African admixture at all. But the tiny rate of interbreeding has had a slow long-term effect. In fact, it is precisely because exogamy is so low that we can measure the impact that each of these two phenomena (group membership and genetic admixture) has on the other. In societies with a Gaussian (normal or bell curve) distribution of genetic admixture (without an endogamous color line), such a study would be impossible.31 It would be hopeless for example, to try to compare the ethnic self-identity of Irish-Americans with their degree of Celtic versus Anglo-Saxon genetic admixture. This is because Celtic alleles are widely dispersed, Irish-American self-identity is voluntary, and there is no peer pressure preventing Irish-American out-marriage (except, of course, for marriage with Blacks).
This term refers to a person’s ability to switch from one endogamous group to another. This feature of the U.S. endogamous color line also differs from other countries’ traditions. During apartheid, South Africans routinely switched group membership by requesting it from their local Race Classification Boards. Although the bureaucracy was cumbersome and inconsistent, it enabled change. Individuals were often classified differently from their siblings and parents, and some people changed more than once. South Africans could appeal local reclassification decisions to the national Population Registration Board, thence to the Supreme Court.32 Like U.S. draft boards of the 1970s, South Africa’s local Race Classification Boards reflected local public opinion and often found it helpful to cooperate with those wanting to upgrade from Black to Coloured or from Coloured to White. School principals of schools for children of the White endogamous group could keep up enrollments (and funding) by getting some Coloured children reclassified as White members. But if they pushed too hard, they risked having the whole school reclassified as a school for members of the Coloured endogamous group.33
In contrast, the permeability of the U.S. color line—peoples’ ability to switch between groups—is negligible. In today’s United States, openly proclaimed Black-to-White switching by individuals is exceedingly rare, amounting to just 0.10-to-0.14 percent of the Black population per year.34 Furthermore, it is often done privately and without fanfare. This is undoubtedly because of the eagerness with which academia and the press “out” those who switched, publicly vilifying them for betraying their “race.”35
Of course, that individuals seldom switch does not mean that ethnic groups seldom switch. U.S. immigrant groups have traditionally undergone an acceptance process that moved them from a probationary non-White status to fully White in two or three generations. According to Benjamin Franklin, German-Americans in 1751 Pennsylvania were too dark to pass for White. In his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind he wrote, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. … The Germans are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion. … The English make the principle Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.”36
The Irish took nearly a century to become accepted as members of the White endogamous group. According to the 1860 American Encyclopedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, “[The Irish race shares] inherited features such as “low-browed and savage, groveling and bestial, lazy and wild, simian [ape-like] and sensual….” Scholars of the time described such uniquely Irish race-distinguishing features as eye and skin color, facial configuration, and physique.37 As late as 1881, English historian Edward A. Freeman (1823-1892) opined that the United States “would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a negro, and be hanged for it.”38 As recently as thirty years ago, some people sincerely believed that they could spot an Irishman trying to pass for White.39
Italians, Greeks, and eastern Europeans were considered ineligible for membership in the White endogamous until well into the twentieth century. Before World War II, some Italian-American children in the South were forced to attend segregated schools for children of the Black endogamous group. Eleven Italian-Americans who tried to pass as members of the White group were lynched in 1891 New Orleans and five more were lynched for the same reason outside the Madison Parish, Louisiana, courthouse in 1899.40 A nineteenth-century physician wrote, “The Slavs are immune to certain kinds of dirt. They can stand what would kill a White man.”41 American Jews did not become accepted as White until the 1940s. Again, as with the Germans, Irish, and Italians, Americans rationalized rejection as based on hereditary appearance. In 1911, Franz Boas (1858-1952) concluded in his groundbreaking The Mind of Primitive Man, “No real biological chasm separated recent immigrants from Mayflower descendants.”42 In reply, the New York Times book review told readers that this book was “the desperate attempt of a Jew to pass himself off as white.”43
Nineteenth-century Asian-American men were not considered members of the White endogamous group. Those who dated women of the White group provoked mass lynchings. Twenty were hanged in 1871 Los Angeles, twenty-eight killed in 1885 Rock Springs, and thirty-one in 1887 Hell’s Canyon.44 Their voting rights were similarly restricted. The 1875 and 1880 modifications of the federal Naturalization Act of 1790 were meant to bar citizenship even from Asian Americans born in the U.S.—ironic, considering that the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution granted citizenship-by-birth to former slaves. After World War II, Chinese-Americans in Mississippi achieved membership in the White endogamous group by deliberately disdaining members of the Black group. Community leaders influenced Chinese males to end relationships with Black females, to expel Afro-Chinese kin, and to force such biracial families to leave the Chinese community. They ended friendships with members of the Black group and ceased interacting courteously with Black customers. In the presence of members of the White group, they joked stereotypically about members of the Black group. They excluded Blacks members from birthday parties, weddings, and funerals. The carefully planned strategy paid off. By the late 1960s, Chinese-American children attended White schools and universities. They joined Mississippi’s infamous White citizen’s councils, became members of White churches, were recorded as White on driver’s licenses, and could marry members of the White endogamous group.45 Asian Americans have been accepted into the White endogamous group so recently that the process has not yet finished. Although many Chinese-Americans in the South can now join exclusive White-only private country clubs, pockets remain on the West Coast where they are still considered Colored.
Judging by census data (see Figure 1 in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture) U.S. Hispanics are also becoming accepted into the White endogamous group. In 1950, Florida and Georgia demographers defined all Puerto Ricans as Colored, no matter how pale. It said, “The term ‘white person’ shall include only persons… who have no trace of… West Indian…. ‘West Indian’ shall include anyone with a West Indies background, regardless of whether his antecedents were… Spanish or French Caucasians….”46 And yet, ever since the 1960 census instructions allowed self-labeling, ninety percent of Puerto Ricans have chosen to be census-White.47
Finally, growing numbers of British West Indians living in the United States apparently seek mainstream acceptance by deliberately distancing themselves from the Black endogamous group. Actress Gloria Reuben (The Agency, Salem Witch Trials, Little John, ER), once said to a dimwitted interviewer who failed to notice several hints, “Stop calling me African-American! I am not African-American; I am Jamaican-Canadian!”48 West Indians’ ongoing acculturation is eerily reminiscent of Puerto Ricans’ bleaching a generation ago.49 Like Puerto Ricans then, many British West Indians now are comfortable with their African heritage and enjoy tracing names, music, or folklore back to Wolof, Fulani, or Yoruba customs, while they simultaneously resent being mistaken for members of the U.S. Black endogamous group. They avoid intermarriage with members of the U.S. Black community, but have no objection to marrying other West Indians of partial African ancestry.50
Many authors have explained how each immigrant group became accepted into mainstream American society and thereby redefined as “White.”51 To become accepted as White, immigrants had to learn a few vital American attitudes: tolerance of the religion and customs of others who have already been accepted as White, respect for education (for generations, Irish-Americans forbade their children to learn to read because they feared that it was a Protestant plot52), acceptance of class mobility (the idea of the self-made man), and finally, they had to learn to display open contempt towards members of the U.S. Black endogamous group. The third item is unfortunate, but the evidence is incontrovertible.53 In short, the U.S. endogamous color line is the lever by which immigrant groups continue to wrench themselves into the White mainstream using Black Americans as the fulcrum.
The point is that the permeability of the U.S. color line—peoples’ ability to switch between groups—is negligible compared to how groups interact in most other countries, as well as compared to other U.S. ethnic groups. In today’s United States, openly proclaimed Black-to-White group switching by individuals, as opposed to the Whitening of entire ethnic groups, is exceedingly rare. As shown in the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing,” it has averaged between 0.10 and 0.14 percent of the Black population per year.
This term “hypodescent” was coined in 1963 by the late University of Florida anthropologist, Marvin Harris.54 It means that U.S. society assigns individuals with known mixed Afro-European heritage to the Black endogamous group, even though they might be of mostly European descent. This study considers the one-drop rule of invisible blackness as hypodescent taken to its absurd conclusion. In lands where other forms of Afro-European racialism exist, the preponderance of appearance determines a person’s “racial” label.
The above figure, “Black/White Intermarriage” shows that the U.S. endogamous color line has weakened since the civil rights movement of 1955-1965 and the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, 1967. It shows that the Black-White intermarriage rate has tripled since 1970. Despite appearances, this rate of change is numerically insignificant. Even if this rate of intermarriage increase were to continue unabated, Black exogamy would not approach the 50 percent rate typical of ethnic groups (Jews, Japanese-Americans, Hispanics) for another six centuries (2.5 percent in three decades equals 50 percent in sixty decades). Other social trends also suggest the permanence of the color line.
Between 1980 and 1995, U.S. Black male earnings fell from 75.1 percent of White male earnings to 71.2 percent. In the same period, the net worth of the median Black family fell from $8,400 to $7,500, while median White family net worth rose from $54,600 to $59,500.55 Public schools are increasingly becoming racially segregated in a national retreat from integration.56 Such color line hardening is national, not global. Blacks in the United Kingdom out-marry with Whites at a 20-to-40 percent rate.57 This is comparable to the exogamy rate of Japanese-Americans or Hispanic Americans. In other words, the endogamous color line continues to be a U.S. phenomenon, not one of Western or even of Anglo-Saxon culture.
Some have seen an adjustment in the mechanics of the 2000 census form as indicative of change, but this is also illusory. Although censuses since 1960 have enabled Americans to choose their own “race,” in 2000 were they allowed to check off more than one box. The decision was made by Congress responding to a campaign launched by more than thirty multiracial organizations across the country, which coalesced into a nationwide political advocacy group: the Association of Multiethnic Americans (AMEA). The “multiracial movement,” as it was then called, lobbied to add a “multiracial” box to the census “race” question. The movement failed due to intense pressure by the Congressional Black caucus, who feared that it would dilute Black political influence. Nevertheless, Congress compromised by ordering the Census Bureau to allow Americans to check off “all boxes that apply.” This partly satisfied those like the multiracial movement who wanted to undermine the census “race” question, those like the American Anthropological Association who wanted to do away with census “race” entirely, and those like Hispanic and Black advocacy groups who wanted to maximize their constituencies’ visibility.58
The decision to allow Americans to “check all race boxes that apply” was met with overheated enthusiasm by some social scientists. According to two sociologists,
[The new federal regulation] illustrates a seismic shift in our understanding of… racial group membership. In fact, the very idea [emphasis in original] of races… will never be the same. … The Census Bureau has dealt a deadly blow to the idea that ‘pure’ races exist, shattering the… notion of races as genetically distinct groupings of human beings.59
The census did nothing of the sort. No seismic shifts shattered anything with deadly blows. The change had no effect on how the average American sees “race.” Despite pre-census fears (by Black politicians) and hopes (by Hispanic ones) that many Blacks would finally admit their European ancestry, it turned out that 95.2 percent of African-Americans checked only one box: “Black.” And despite pre-census fears (by Hispanic politicians) and hopes (by Black ones) that many Hispanics would finally admit their African ancestry, it turned out that 93.7 percent of Hispanic Americans checked only one box: “White.”60
* * * * *
This essay offered a comparative inspection of the U.S. endogamous color line. It explained that the intermarriage barrier is the basis upon which all other aspects of the U.S. “race” notion are constructed. It dissected the color line into four folkloric beliefs: discontinuity, that a single color-line exists; endogamy, that people should not marry across it; impermeability, that you cannot switch sides from Black to White; and hypodescent, that if you have a parent who is a member of the Black endogamous group then you are Black also, no matter your preference or even your appearance. It predicted that the U.S. endogamous color line is not likely to vanish within the next few centuries.
1 UPI, Analysis: Race Now Not Black and White (May 8, 2002).
2 See the graduate student application form issued by Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale FL.
3 This is not meant to debate the most recent variant of Milford Wolpoff’s theory of multiregional evolution (MRE), which claims (without molecular evidence) that modern humans interbred with prior Eurasian hominins during the African diaspora. It merely acknowledges the fact of the diaspora and the timing of “racially” distinctive features—points supported by most paleoanthropologists today, including MRE supporters.
4 Although few overall surveys of molecular admixture mapping have yet emerged, Stephen Molnar, Human Variation: Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River NJ, 2002) and John Relethford, Genetics and the Search for Modern Human Origins (New York, 2001) discuss it in passing, and Steve Olson, Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes (Boston, 2002) provides a very elementary introduction. Fascinating individual studies abound, however. For example, Elena Bosch and others, “High Level of Male-Biased Scandinavian Admixture in Greenlandic Inuit Shown by Y-Chromosomal Analysis,” Human Genetics, 112 (April 2003), 353-63 reveals extensive European patrilineal infiltration into the Inuit, presumably because of the natives’ well-known hospitality.
5 F. James Davis, Who is Black?: One Nation’s Definition (University Park PA, 1991), 87-88.
6 Ibid., 88-90.
7 UPI, Analysis: Race Now Not Black and White (May 8, 2002). “Vanished” is a relative term, of course. There are villages along Mexico’s Gulf Coast near Vera Cruz where alleles for African appearance are frequent enough to align now and then, producing Mexicans with dark skin-tone. Such individuals consider themselves dark Mexicans and have no “Black” self-identity or ethnicity. See also Rachel Graves, “Forgotten Culture: Ignored by Society, Black Mexicans Deny Their History,” Houston Chronicle, July 3 2004.
8 Davis (1991), 83.
9 Ibid., 83-84. Amerinds also suffer from some of the same social problems, but look down on the Métis nonetheless.
10 Ibid., 84-85. Incidentally, most pre-DNA scientists of bio-race classified East Indians as “Caucasoids,” despite their dark complexion. U.S. courts have continued to waffle on this point.
11 Tom O’Neill, “Untouchables,” National Geographic, June 2003, 2-31.
12 Davis (1991), 85-86. For what it’s worth, the French took their 25,000 biracial children with them when they pulled out of Vietnam after Dienbienphu.
13 Davis (1991), 90-98, 105-9.
14 Winthrop D. Jordan, “American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Definition of Mulattoes in the British Colonies,” in Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History, ed. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese (Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1969), 189-201.
15 Davis (1991), 107; Hilary Beckles, A History of Barbados: From Amerindian Settlement to Nation-State (Cambridge UK, 1990) 48, 50, 68-69.
16 Jordan (1969), 190, 197.
17 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1988), 547.
18 Beckles (1990), 90, 104.
19 Arnold A. Sio, “Marginality and Free Coloured Identity in Caribbean Slave Society,” in Caribbean Slave Society and Economy: A Student Reader, ed. Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd (New York, 1991), 150-59, 151.
20 Suzanne Model and Gene Fisher, “Unions Between Blacks and Whites: England and the U.S. Compared,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 25 (no. 5, September 2002), 728-54.
21 George Reid Andrews, “Racial Inequality in Brazil and the United States: A Statistical Comparison,” Journal of Social History, 26 (no. 2, Winter 1992), 229-63. For a survey of the historiography of the remarkably permeable color lines of the British West Indies (if you looked European, you were White by definition), see David Lowenthal, “Post-Emancipation Race Relations: Some Caribbean and American Perpectives,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 13 (no. 3/4, Jul-Oct 1971), 367-77.
22 Some Latin American countries do ask for “color” or skin tone on the census, but the answer has been shown to correlate with wealth. See Andrews (1992). Oddly, the word negro in Puerto Rican Spanish today is seldom used to denote appearance. It is simply the most common Puerto Rican term of endearment, like the English honey. It is used by affectionate couples, even those who look entirely European.
23 Henry Louis Gates, “The Passing of Anatole Broyard,” in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black man (New York, 1997), xxvi, 226.
24 Gunnar Myrdal, Richard Mauritz Edvard Sterner, and Arnold Marshall Rose, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York, 1972), 606. Some suggest that Myrdal’s statement on the importance of the ban on intermarriage to ostracism of the Black endogamous group reifies “race” in some way. I disagree, but even if this were so, it would be irrelevant. The existence of the U.S. endogamous color line is a measurable phenomenon. Whether it is undesireable in the sense of moral philosophy is not at issue here.
25 Leonard Dinnerstein and David M. Reimers, Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration, 4th ed. (New York, 1999), 179.
26 Milton M. Gordon, Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins (New York, 1964), 235-36.
27 Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols. (London, 1994), 1:11; Lila E. Salazar, Love Child: A Genealogist’s Guide to the Social History of Barbados (St. Michael, Barbados, 2000) 151-12.
28 For the methodology used in arriving at this figure, see Appendix A. Census Data Processing Methodology, specifically, the section titled “Black/White Intermarriage.”
29 See note 4 in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
30 See note 5 in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
31 For details, see the final paragraph of the topic “Admixture Scatter Diagrams” in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
32 Davis (1991), 67, 97.
33 Graham Watson, Passing for White: A Study of Racial Assimilation in a South African School (London, 1970), 10-24, chap. 4. Incidentally, none of the above is meant to suggest that South Africans’ three-group system is in any way more logical or beneficial than America’s two-group system. All appearance-based systems tend to crumble around the edges. U.S. courts have still not resolved whether East Indians are members of the U.S. White endogamous group. Similarly, in South Africa, Japanese were ruled to be White whereas Chinese were officially Coloured. One final remark about South Africa: Due to recent Black political supremacy, their society may be changing. It may now be in transition, from seeing hybrids as intermediate in social rank, to relegating them to inferior status, as in Uganda. A Coloured South African recently complained to a newspaper reporter, “In the old system, we weren’t White enough; now we aren’t Black enough.” See Lydia Polgreen, “For Mixed-Race South Africans, Equity is Elusive,” The New York Times International, July 27 2003, 3.
34 For details, see the topic “The Average Yearly Rate is Between 0.10 and 0.14 Percent” in the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”
35 In addition to Henry Louis Gates, “The Passing of Anatole Broyard,” in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black man (New York, 1997), xxvi, 226, mentioned earlier, see Interracial Voice: A.D. Powell, When Are Irish-Americans Not Good Enough to Be Irish-American?: ‘Racial Kidnaping’ and the Case of the Healy Family (http://interracialvoice.com/powell8.html) (1998); 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, Fall 1997); Interracial Voice, Pissing on the Graves of Heroes, May [Electronic Magazine] (2003); The Multiracial Activist, The Misidentification of Mother Henriette Delille, August [Electronic Magazine] (2002).
36 As quoted in Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968), 102, 143.
37 Dale T. Knobel, Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America, 1st ed. (Middletown CT, 1986), 88. As quoted in Jonathan W. Warren and France Winddance Twine, “White Americans, the New Minority?,” Journal of Black Studies, 28 (no. 2, 1997), 200-18, 203; David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the America Working Class (London, 1991), 133.
38 As quoted in Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols. (London, 1994), 1:29.
39 H.L Gates, Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (New York, 1992), 49.
40 Adam Fairclough, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 (Athens, 1995), 6.
41 As quoted in Mary C. Waters, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (Berkeley, 1990).
42 Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York, 1911).
43 Lothrop Stoddard, as quoted in Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, 1998), 184.
44 Harry H. L. Kitano and Roger Daniels, Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, 1995), 24.
45 James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (Cambridge MA, 1971); Warren (1997), 200-18, 209-11.
46 Stetson Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide: The Way it Was (Boca Raton FL, 1990), 47-49.
47 Clara E. Rodriguez, “Challenging Racial Hegemony: Puerto Ricans in the United States,” in Race, ed. Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek (New Brunswick NJ, 1994), 131-45.
48 One might ask whether Ms. Reuben’s scolding does not reflect a desire to deconstruct the U.S. color line, rather than to distance herself from the Black community. It is, of course, impossible to know Ms. Reuben’s innermost motives. But the literature of West Indian resistance to being involuntarily assigned to the Black endogamous group by American society (especially by members of the U.S. Black endogamous group) is vast. See, for example, Stephen A. Woodbury, “Culture, Human Capital, and the Earnings of West Indian Blacks,” (1993); Mary C. Waters, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities (New York, 1999); Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America: A History (New York, 1981), 219; or Malcolm Gladwell, “Black Like Them,” The New Yorker, April 29 1996. The interpretation presented here makes Ms. Reuben’s statement unexceptional. The alternative (that she wants to defy the U.S. social system, rather than position herself advantageously within it) would be exceedingly anomalous.
49 One might also wonder whether this suggests or implies that West Indians are currently following the same trajectory as the earlier Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Jews, and so forth, who achieved acceptance into the White endogamous group. That is precisely what this study suggests. Finally, one might ask: “Why have other ethnic groups (Germans, Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and Puerto Ricans) achieved acceptance into the White endogamous group, but native-born members of the Black endogamous group have not achieved acceptance into the White endogamous group?” This study does not attempt to answer that question. There is, of course, no physical trait that would prevent it. After all, it is a cliché among forensic anthropologists that the only way to tell if an unidentified corpse is Hispanic, rather than Black with lots of European genetic admixture, is to search the pockets for a shopping list written in Spanish.
50 See Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America: A History (New York, 1981), 219. Incidentally, not all those of B.W.I. lineage reject the Black label. Jamaican-descended General Colin Powell, for example, identifies himself as Black.
51 See, for example: Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick NJ, 1998); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York, 1995); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, 1998); Ian F. Haney-Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York, 1996).
52 Oscar Handlin, Boston‘s Immigrants, 1790-1880, Rev. and enl. ed. (Cambridge MA, 1959), Chapter 5.
53 The best overall survey of such evidence is Warren (1997), 200-18.
54 Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas (Westport CT, 1964), 37.
55 Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (New York, 1995), 108.
56 Gary Orfield and Susan E. Eaton, Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (New York, 1996).
57 Suzanne Model and Gene Fisher, “Unions Between Blacks and Whites: England and the U.S. Compared,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 25 (no. 5, September 2002), 728-54.
58 For an excellent overall survey of the multiracial movement, see G. Reginald Daniel, More than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order (Philadelphia, 2002). For the American Anthopological Association’s plea to the Federal Government to discontinue the census “race” question once and for all, see URL (http://www.aaanet.org/gvt/ombdraft.htm). For a brief overview of these issues, see Bijan Gilanshah, “Multiracial Minorities: Erasing the Color Line,” Law and Inequality, 12 (December 1993), 183.
59 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), 101-21, 112.
60 Nicholas A. Jones and Amy Symens Smith, “The Two or More Races Population: 2000,” (Washington, 2001), 12, page 7 tables 4 and 5. Black political leaders want Hispanics to check off “Black” as well as “White” in order to swell their constituencies, thereby increasing Black affirmative action quotas. Hispanic political leaders want African-Americans to check off “White” as well as “Black” in order to swell the ranks of those seen as multiracial, thereby increasing Hispanic affirmative action quotas.
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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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