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Wed, 09.08.1565

The ‘One Drop Rule’ in America, a story

*The One-Drop Rule (ODR) is referenced on this date in 1565, the date St. Augustine, Florida was established.

The one-drop rule once an American spoken phrase morphed into a legal term used to separate white citizens from all others.  It holds that a person with any trace of Black African ancestry (however small or invisible) cannot be considered white.   Beginning with the Middle Passage and during the centuries of American slavery, people had interracial relationships, both forced and voluntary. In the Colonial years, free people of mixed race (free people of color) were considered legally white if individuals had less than one-eighth or one-quarter African ancestry (depending on the state). Many mixed-race people were absorbed into the majority culture based simply on appearance, associations and carrying out community responsibilities.

These and community acceptance were the more important factors if a person's racial status were questioned, not his or her documented ancestry.  In the early colonial years, children born of one Indigenous and one non-Native parent usually had a white father and an Indigenous mother. This was largely due to the majority of the early colonists being male. As many Native American tribes had matrilineal kinship systems, they considered the children to be born to the mother's family and clan. If they were raised in the culture, they were considered members of the community, and therefore, fully Native American.  Because of the social mobility of antebellum society in frontier areas, many people did not have documentation about their ancestors anyway.

Although racial segregation was adopted legally by southern states of the former Confederacy in the late 19th century, legislators resisted defining race by law as part of preventing interracial marriages. In 1895 in South Carolina during discussion, George D. Tillman said, It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of... colored blood...It would be a cruel injustice and the source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood. The doors would be open to scandal, malice, and greed.

Prior to colonization, and still in traditional communities, the idea of determining belonging by degree of "blood" was, and is, unheard of. Native American tribes did not use blood quantum law until the government introduced the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, instead determining tribal status on the basis of kinship, lineage and family ties.   Among patrilineal tribes, such as the Omaha, historically a child born to an Omaha mother and a white father could belong officially to the Omaha tribe only if the child were formally adopted into it by a male citizen. In contemporary practice, tribal laws around citizenship and parentage can vary widely between nations.  Between 1904 and 1919, tribal members of with any amount of African ancestry were disenrolled from the Chitimacha tribe of Louisiana, and their descendants have since then been denied tribal membership.  

The One Drop Rule’s suggestion is that unless any person has non-white ancestry they can claim, such as Native American, Asian, Arab, Australian aboriginal, they must be considered Black.  This concept of invisible/intangible membership in a "racial" group has seldom been applied to people of any other non-European group and has been largely applied to those of Black African ancestry. Langston Hughes wrote, "You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown."

During the 20th century American Civil Rights Movement, the dishonor associated with Black African ancestry was claimed as a socio-political advantage. The decades of the Jim Crow era, Tennessee adopted a one-drop statute first in Tennessee in 1910 and in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 (engaging the passage of similar laws in several other states).  Texas and Arkansas in 1911, Mississippi in 1917, North Carolina in 1923, Alabama and Georgia in 1927, and Oklahoma in 1931. During this same period, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Utah retained their old blood fraction statutes de jure but amended these fractions (one-sixteenth, one-thirty-second) to be equivalent to one-drop de facto. There have been failed legal attempts at the federal level to dismantle whiteness as well, Ozawa v. United States 1922 is an example.  

By 1925, almost every state had a one-drop law on their books, or something comparable. These were the laws that gave power to bureaucrats like Walter Plecker of Virginia, Naomi Drake of Louisiana,and others who insisted on labeling families of mixed ancestry as black.  Before 1930, individuals of mixed European and African ancestry were classified as mulattoes, sometimes as black and sometimes as white.  The main purpose of the one-drop rule was to prevent interracial relationships and thus keep whites "pure."  In step with this concept was also the assumption that blacks would be "improved" through white intermixture.  Despite the one-drop rule being illegal (ever since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 overturned the Virginia Racial Integrity Act), as recently as 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the ODR to stand by refusing to hear a case against Louisiana’s "racial" classification criteria as applied to Susie Phipps (479 U.S. 1002). 

Several authors and journalists have found it very profitable to "out" as Black famous historical mulattoes and whites, who were regarded as white in their society, who self-identified as such, and who were culturally European-American, merely because they acknowledged having (often slight) African ancestry (Patrick Francis Healy, Peter Ustinov, John James Audubon, Henriette Delille and others).  The one-drop rule can mean that many light-skinned people are considered Black. In many cases the person can actually have more white ancestry than Black.  During slavery, there could have been a mulatto person, who because of the one-drop rule was considered Black. If they then had a child with a white person, the child would have been considered one-quarter Black, but still considered Black.

There are plenty of people through American history that have been more white than Black but were considered Black (Sally Hemings, Carol Channing and G.K. Butterfield). However, these people are the exception, not the rule. Technically the average person who self-identifies as Black in America has at least 53% of their ancestors from Africa. Only 10% of Americans who self-identify as Black are less than 50% sub-Saharan in ancestry. 

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