Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
July 1, 2007
.S. racialism is dichotomous. You are legally either White or Black with no in-between. But real people are culturally and biologically continuous. Millions of Americans have grandparents of both ethnic groups, and millions more have DNA markers from both Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. How has the U.S. legal system resolved the contradiction in order to decide whether a person of dual heritage is White or Black?
Since the turn of the eighteenth century when the U.S. endogamous color line was invented, courts have employed four different methods of assigning “racial” membership: appearance, blood fraction, association, and the one-drop rule.
The chart at right reveals that court cases underwent three phases over the past two centuries: a brief period when every case was decided by the rule of physical appearance, a longer period when the rule of blood fraction (and the rule of association) contended with the rule of physical appearance but never replaced it, and a period lasting about a century when the one-drop rule of invisible Blackness emerged and gradually became dominant until finally deciding every case.
Percent of Cases per Decade Nationwide
The chart at left depicts the same data, but as percentages of total “racial” determination cases. It makes the trends more vivid. Again, until about 1820, most cases were decided by the person’s physical appearance. From then until about 1890, blood fraction or association decided most cases, although appearance still counted for something. Finally, from around the turn of the twentieth century to today, the one-drop rule of invisible Blackness emerged and gradually replaced all other methods.
The Rule of Appearance – Most early cases focused on physical appearance. People who looked mostly African were usually assigned to the Black endogamous group. You might think that complexion, hair curliness, nose width, lip thickness, and the like would be important but, in fact, some cases depended upon the shape of the jaw or of the foot, or on purple- or blue-colored marks on certain parts of the body. The rule of appearance was not symmetrical. Having a European appearance was decisive during the early republic, fell in importance throughout the nineteenth century, and became irrelevant by the Jim Crow era. On the other hand, having an African appearance has usually consigned you to the Black side of the endogamous color line throughout the past three centuries.
The Rule of Blood fraction – The earliest law regarding racial membership was passed in 1705 Virginia. It decreed that you were Black if you had one or more Black great-grandparents. If you had less than 1/8 Black blood you were White. In 1785, Virginia changed this to a 1/4 rule (which is why Jefferson’s son Eston Hemings appears as “white” in the 1830 Charlottesville census). Other states soon followed. By 1910, when Tennessee became the first state to switch to a one-drop rule, almost every state defined the color line via Afro-European blood fraction. In that year, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas defined a Black endogamous group member as one with one or more “negro” great-grandparents (1/8 or more Black). Alabama used a 1/32 rule. Nebraska, Oregon, Virginia, and Michigan used as 1/4 rule (one or more “negro” grandparents). Ohio ruled that you were legally of the White endogamous group if you were mostly of European blood (1/2 rule).
The Rule of Association – In several cases, courts decided someone’s endogamous group membership based on the person’s having been already accepted into that side of the color line, and associated only with people on that side. According to Ariela J. Gross, this yardstick was surprisingly common, especially in the lower south. It may seem odd that, in order to be allowed legally to exercise the privileges of White endogamous group membership, you had to demonstrate that you had already exercised those very privileges, but such was often the case. (In the above charts, the rule of association follows the same timeline as the rule of blood fraction.)
The One drop Rule – Starting in 1910, most states switched to a “racial” determination criterion based on the mere possibility that a person had a Black ancestor, no matter how long ago. The color line thus became unrelated to appearance, association or blood fraction. Indeed, it became unrelated to anything tangible or provable. It became defined by the one-drop rule.
Three oddities of U.S. “racial” determination deserve further study. First, only the rules of blood fraction and the one-drop rule were ever written into statute by state legislatures. The rules of appearance and association were always left to caselaw and precedent.
Second, although the U.S. Census Bureau in 1960 decided that a person’s own choice should determine his or her “race” on the federal census, no other U.S. federal agency follows this self-identity policy. For example, in court cases today regarding workplace discrimination or affirmative action, your own opinion of your “race” is considered irrelevant.
Finally, many Americans are ignorant of their nation’s history and project current beliefs onto the past. For example, the Wikipedia page on the one-drop rule falsely states that “the one-drop rule was made law as early as 1705 in Virginia.” As every scholar knows, the 1705 Virginia law was a 1/8 blood-fraction law, and the first one-drop law was 1910 Tennessee. The tenacity with which ideologues vandalize Wikipedia is breathtaking, but it illustrates the problem. Many Americans fiercely want to believe that the color line is universal and has always existed, and that the one-drop rule was in effect during slavery. In fact, the endogamous Black/White color line exists nowhere but in the United States, it was invented in 1691, and the one-drop rule was first written into law in 1910.
For details on the history of the “racial” determination cases, see Legal History of the Color Line by Frank W. Sweet (ISBN 9780939479238). For details on the above graphs, see The Invention of the One-Drop Rule in the 1830s North.
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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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