Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
August 9, 2010
G. Reginald Daniel, More than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2002). Endnotes. Index. Pp. xviii, 258. Cloth $69.50. Paper $22.95. — Book reviewed by Frank W. Sweet.
(This review was originally published in Interracial Voice magazine in 2002.)
Reginald Daniel is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is well qualified to write on the politics of the multiracial movement, being a member of the advisory boards of both the AMEA (American Association of Multiethnic Americans) and Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally). The AMEA was founded in 1986 by Carlos Fernández, then president of I-Pride of Berkeley, and John Brown, a member of the Interracial Family Alliance of Atlanta. Project RACE was founded in 1991 by two mothers of biracial children, Susan Graham and Chris Ashe. Both organizations achieved national status, lobbying with moderate success to make Americans aware of multiracial consciousness. But they fought over the two ways of collecting data about multiracial people’s self-label: the check-all-boxes-that-apply approach (eventually adopted by the U.S. census 2000) and adding a separate box for “multiracial” (adopted by many state school boards). Dr. Daniel’s self-described role as “liaison between the two organizations” (p. 137) puts him in a perfect position to tells us about their feud.
The book is divided into four sections. Part I “White Over Black” tells the author’s ideas about the historical origins of racism. Part II “Black No More” describes his thoughts on the beginnings of the Jim Crow era. Part III “More Than Black” narrates the political struggle of the last decade for a multiracial label. Part IV “Black No More or More than Black?” connects the multiracial movement to the ideas of postmodernists like Foucault and Derrida or to postcolonialists like Chakrabarty and Said.
Part I “White Over Black” traces racism to when Europeans conquered the planet in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He says that racist ideology is what fueled Eurocentrism (a sense that The Other is inferior) and so justified European conquests. He says that New World colonists enforced “the one-drop rule in order to preserve both their cultural and racial ‘purity’ and their dominant status” (p. 3).
Part II “Black No More” narrates the strategies adopted by fair-complexioned Americans of partial African descent as they tried to survive the Jim Crow nightmare: elitist colorism (as in blue-vein societies like the former Jack and Jill), Creolization (as in Louisiana), the formation of tri-racial isolates (such as the Kentucky Melungeons, Arkansas Redbones, North Carolina Lumbees, or Florida Seminoles), or simply by switching labels and “passing.” Dr. Daniel apparently dislikes these unfortunates, for he labels their strategies “psychosocial pathology” (p. 111), “insidious toxins in the racial ecology” (p. 8), “fraudulent,” and “racial thieves” (p. 83).
Part III “More Than Black” is a gripping narrative of the fierce struggle (involving AMEA, Project RACE, federal agencies, and traditional Black organizations) between those who wanted to legitimize a modern-day “multiracial” self-label and those who wanted to crush such a concept out of existence as a threat to Black political/spiritual solidarity. It tells how well-intentioned organizations often worked at cross-purposes, how compromises were agreed to but then reneged on, how federal agencies were ordered to give an illusion of unanimity, and how organization members tried (sometimes successfully) to overthrow the leadership of competing organizations.
Part IV “Black No More or More than Black?” reveals Dr. Daniel’s conviction that postmodernism is an intellectual “violent seismic shift” comparable to that of the Enlightenment (p. 181). He believes that its deconstructionist ideology is now sweeping the world, increasingly embraced by “physicists, philosophers, logicians, linguists, social scientists, administrators, foreign policy analysts, and engineers,” as well as “new age” gurus (p. 184). He considers the modern multiracial movement to be an offspring of postmodernism or postcolonialism. Hence, he believes that the current multiracial effort is a praiseworthy struggle—in contrast to the “psychosocial pathology” of historically earlier people who saw themselves as multiracial. Although today’s multiracial movement risks playing into the hands of racist White society and threatens Black solidarity, Dr. Daniel concludes that “such a transformation in thought and behavior would move the United States closer to the ideal of a land of equal opportunity for all.”
This book made a great first impression even before I opened it. The back cover has endorsements from the three scholars whom I most respect in the world. F. James Davis said it “is a major contribution to understanding multiracial identity.” And Davis wrote Who is Black? (University Park PA: State University of Pennsylvania, 1991), a wonderfully important, groundbreaking book that compares “race” notions here and now versus those in other lands, other times.
Gary B. Nash said it “is a splendid analysis of how the American nation built walls to keep people apart.” And Nash wrote Red, White, and Black (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982), the book that smashed once and for all the myth that Virginia’s post-1690 endogamy was due to lack or excess of White women (British West Indies colonists intermarried but Virginians did not, despite having precisely the same culture, religion, and access to European women).
Joe R. Feagin called it “an original analysis [that] thoroughly examines the long history of multiracial ancestries and communities in the U.S.” And Feagin (Pulitzer-prize nominee for Ghetto Revolts, 1973, current president of the American Sociological Association) earned the 1996 Oliver C. Cox Book Award for his White Racism: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 1995), the definitive book on the myriad, unnoticed, involuntary racial inequalities embedded in U.S. Society. Dr. Feagin’s endorsement especially impressed me since I know the man personally. He is a brilliant and sincere one-dropper who believes that Ricardo Montalban, President Fox, Linda Ronstadt, Anthony Quinn, Martin Sheen and his two sons, U.S. Representative Bob Menendez (D-NY), presidential hopeful Tony Garza, former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) are irretrievably “non-white” or “colored” no matter what they may call themselves.
The following evaluation considers the book by section, starting with the strongest and ending with the least useful.
Part III “More Than Black” (p. 93-151) is the best part of the book. It is a compelling page-turner told from an insider’s viewpoint. Among the fascinating items that I learned here are: Why do so many in the multiracial community define “multiracial” as only the offspring of Black/White marriages and specifically exclude folks whose parents and grandparents have enjoyed mixed Afro-European heritage for generations? The answer is that this definition is demanded by traditional Black organizations, who see the multiracial idea as a threat to Black unity. This definition keeps the number of multiracial individuals perpetually insignificant (p. 104-106). Why are so few interested in the biology of complexion heredity? Because the issue is political labeling based on ancestry not on phenotype/genotype (p. 145). Why do so many exclude folks of Latin-American heritage? Again, it is partly to keep numbers artificially small but also because many Latinos reject any association with African-Americans, whom they sneer down on (p. 101, 109). (It is hard to label such contempt “racism,” as most Americans do, since many of these disdainful Latinos proudly acknowledge their own African ancestry.) Why did the “add a multiracial box” versus “check-all-boxes-that-apply” strategists become so vindictive towards each other during the census debates? The answer, beyond their simply espousing different means to the same goal of course, was partly misunderstandings and partly, oddly enough, due to personality conflict between AMEA’s Carlos Fernández and Project RACE’s Susan Graham (p. 137).
The flaws in part III are minor. They are merely odd judgment calls caused by the author’s applying ethics rather than simply narrating events: the author’s claim that those of us who strive for social integration are motivated by a desire to retain White power (p. 119), his assertion that “race” has not declined in U.S. significance since the 1940s (p. 121), his designating dark-complexioned people who call themselves “multiracial” as “defecting” from the Black community (p. 129).
Part II “Black No More” is recent history not current events. Daniel’s page 63 tale of the invention and spread of the one-drop rule between 1910 and 1930 is truly outstanding, the best account that I have read. On the other hand, this section contains a few minor factual inconsistencies. Page 52 says that the average Euro-American carries one percent African genes, but page 20 says five percent. In fact, the number depends on how many generations back you count. For one generation back (Euro-Americans with an African-looking parent) the number is zero percent. For 400 generations back (the last Paleolithic African migration to Europe), the number is one hundred percent. For ancestors since 1850, say, the U.S. number is about four percent.
Part I “White Over Black” is weaker. A problem when researching any topic is that you might uncover the unexpected. When this happens, it is best to change course. Dr. Daniel fails to do this. Apparently, he wanted to write about the origin of the one-drop rule in the 1500s. But when he learned that this idea of labeling a European-looking person “black” due solely to invisible ancestry was first invented around 1910 and has existed nowhere but in the United States, he did not want to waste all his research, so he decided to write about the “race” notion instead. But when he discovered that even this idea started around 1680, and he still wanted to use his age-of-exploration material, he wrote about European world-conquest instead—a topic unrelated to the one-drop rule, the endogamous color line, or to anything else in rest of the book.
Factual mistakes in this section include: That the “race” notion, strictly defined as an endogamous impermeable caste, dates from the 1500s (p.25). In fact, it dates from around 1690. That racialized thinking justified African slavery (p. 30). In fact, Egyptian, Babylonian, Hittite, Greek, Roman, Muslim, and, indeed African, slavers had no need to justify African slavery, much less have a notion of “race.” That the bible says Ham’s descendants were cursed with blackness (p. 31). It says no such thing. That all Europeans believed in endogamous impermeable “races” (p. 32). Iberia is in Europe and Iberians never believed this—still don’t. That in 1785 the state of Florida implemented Virginia’s law defining “Black” as anyone with more than one African-looking grandparent (p. 41). In fact, Florida was a Spanish colony until 1821 and had no such law before then. That the one-drop rule “served to increase the number of slaves” (p. x). In fact, U.S. slavery had been dead for a half-century when the rule was first invented. That Virginia colonists enforced racial endogamy because they had more or fewer European women than other colonies (p. 39). As Nash has shown, there was no difference in availability of European women in the late seventeenth century, when endogamy was first enforced, between Virginian versus Jamaican or Barbadian colonists (who intermarried like gangbusters). Oddly, Daniel cites Nash in a footnote for this mistaken claim.
Finally, Part IV “Black No More or More than Black?” is simply unintelligible. To paraphrase Karl Popper and Lawrence Stone, postmodernism means many different and contradictory things to its proponents. But one tenet is fundamental: never say anything that can be objectively tested. Dr. Daniel follows this maxim in Part IV. The following paragraph, for example, conveys no intelligible information that can objectively be tested in any way.
Ontologically, Afrocentrism assumes that all elements of the universe are viewed as one and are seen as functionally interconnected. This rejection of clearly delineated boundaries extends to morality, temporality, and the very meaning of reality. Afrocentrism underscores the value of interpersonal relationships. This person-to-person emphasis fosters a human-centered orientation that values interpersonal connections more highly than material objects. Afrocentrists reject Eurocentric dichotomous thinking that divides concepts into mutually polar opposites. Afrocentricity [sic] thus provides a mode through which all individuals can liberate themselves from the restrictive dichotomization and hierarchical concepts of the modern Eurocentric model. It posits a cosmic vision that acknowledges an inheritance that all individuals share as descendants of the first diaspora, when humans migrated out of Africa to populate the globe. (p. 174)
All in all, this review’s conclusion comes down to the strength of parts II and III. Would you pay $69.50 ($22.95 in paperback) for a hundred fascinating and informative pages on the early Jim Crow era and the census debate of the last decade? I would, and so I recommend it.
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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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