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 "One-Drop Rule" (49233 hits)

“One-Drop Rule”

Background and Summary

The One-Drop Rule is an historical, colloquial term in the United States that holds that a person with any trace of sub-Saharan ancestry, however small or invisible, cannot be considered White and so unless said person has an alternative non-White ancestry they can claim, such as Native American, Asian, Arab, Australian aboriginal, they must be considered Black.

This notion of the “invisible” or “intangible” membership to an ethnic group has seldom been applied to people of Native American ancestry; the notion 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 Black pride era of the Civil Rights Movement, the stigma associated with sub-Saharan ancestry was claimed as a socio-political advantage.

The 1910s were the nadir of the Jim Crow laws era by most measures. Tennessee adopted a one-drop statute in 1910. It was followed by Louisiana the same year, Texas and Arkansas in 1911, Mississippi in 1917, North Carolina in 1923, Virginia in 1924, Alabama and Georgia in 1927, and Oklahoma in 1931. During this same time, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah retained their old racial blood fraction statutes, but amended these fractions, such as one-eighth or one-sixteenth etc., to be equivalent to simply one drop of Negro blood, de facto. By 1925, almost every state had some form of a one-drop law on the books. These were the laws that empowered to bureaucrats like Walter Plecker of Virginia, Naomi Drake of Louisiana and a number of others around the country, to insistently label families of mixed ancestry as “Black,” despite the actual percentages.

Tracing Bloodlines

Before 1930, individuals of mixed European and African ancestry were generally classified as “mulattoes,” sometimes as Black and sometimes as White. So it became, at first, the main purpose of the one-drop rule was to prevent interracial relationships, and thus keep Whites "pure." It was believed that the blood of Black people, or of other races than White, was “tainted.” In 1924, Plecker wrote, "Two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher." In line with this concept was also the assumption that Blacks would somehow be "improved" through White inter-mixing.

Plecker was preceded by Madison Grant who wrote in his book, The Passing of the Great Race, "The cross between a White man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a White man and a Negro is a Negro; the cross between a White man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew."

In the case of Native American admixture with Whites, the one-drop rule was extended only as far as to those with one-fourth Native American blood. This was due to what was known as the "Pocahontas exception." The "Pocahontas exception" existed because many influential Virginian families claimed to be descendants of Pocahontas. To avoid classifying them as non-White, the Virginia General Assembly declared that a person could be considered White as long as they had no more than one-sixteenth Native American blood.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling in the case of Loving v. Virginia, conclusively invalidated Plecker's Virginia Racial Integrity Act. That meant the Court was reversing the one-drop rule, calling it unconstitutional. But despite this holding, the one-drop theory is still influential in U.S. society. Multiracial individuals with visibly mixed European and African and/or Native American ancestry are often still considered non-White, unless they explicitly declare themselves White or Anglo. They are typically identified instead as mixed-race, mulatto, Black or American Indian, for example. By contrast, these standards are widely rejected by people of the Latino community, the majority of who are of mixed ancestry, but to them, their Latino cultural heritage is more important to their ethnic identities than "race." Therein, they are Hispanic or Latino first, and Black, White etc., second. So, the one-drop rule is generally not applied to Latinos of mixed origin or to Arab-Americans.

Grouping the Races

There are several different methods that are useful in trying to assess the future of the one-drop rule in the U.S., including how interracial parents choose to label their children on the decennial U.S. census, on academic and opinions polls, and through trends in national affirmative action court cases.

From the Reconstruction era until about 1930, the children of Black and White parents and/or mixed-race parents were usually just identified as mulatto or “mixed.” It is becoming increasingly common for people to identify themselves as multi-racial, mulatto or mixed rather than as only Black or White. It became something that was no longer an either, or decision. The fraction of mixed children that the census labeled as solely Black dropped from 62 percent in 1990, to 31 percent in 2000, when the option of choosing multiple "races" were first allowed. This suggested that the one-drop theory, and not being allowed to claim one's European ancestry, was no longer sanctioned the way it used to be.

Despite the one-drop rule being deemed unconstitutional in 1967, as recently as 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the one-drop rule to stand by refusing to hear a case against the state of Louisiana’s racial classification procedures as were applied to Susie Phipps. In addition, several authors and journalists found it profitable to "out" historically famous Blacks, mulattoes and Whites, who were regarded as “White” within society. These people who were exposed often self-identified as being “White” and were culturally European-American, merely because they acknowledged having  a small percentage of African ancestry. Such examples of some who were “ousted” are: Anatole Broyard, Patrick Francis Healy, Michael Morris Healy, Jr., Sir Peter Ustinov, Calvin Clark Davis, John James Audubon and Mother Henriette Delille.

Many scholars publishing on this topic today, including Neil Gotanda, Michael L. Blakey, Christine Hickman, Dinesh D'Souza, Mary C. Waters and Debra J. Dickerson, affirm that the one-drop rule is still dominant in American popular culture. Affirmative action court cases on the other hand in instances where an apparently White person claims Black ancestry in order to receive federal entitlements and/or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission benefits, are split. In some cases, such as the one in 1985, involving Boston firefighters Philip and Paul Malone, courts have held that such claimants are guilty of "racial fraud," despite their claim of a Black grandparent. In other instances, such as the 1988 Denver case of schoolteacher, Mary Walker, who was a person of fair complexion, green eyes, light brown hair and no documented Black ancestry, the courts have ordered employers to accept claimants as Black for EEOC purposes. And other claimants, such as 1997 Detroit businessman Mostafa Hefny, a Black-looking immigrant actually from Africa (Egypt), are denied benefits because North Africans are considered to be White.

Meanings of the Rule

Mainly because of the one-drop rule there are many light-skinned people that are considered Black. In many of these instances, the person can actually have more White ancestry than Black. There are examples of how this could happen through the generations. 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 be one-fourth Black, and during that time, that child would still be considered “Black,” even though they are technically three-fourths White. There are plenty of people throughout American history that have a higher percentage of Caucasian heritage than of Black heritage, but they had been generally considered Black, depending on their features and level of skin color. Examples of this would include: Sally Hemings and G.K. Butterfield. However, such people are the exception, not the rule. The average person who self-identifies as Black in America has at least 53 percent of their ancestry from sub-Saharan Africa. Only 10 percent of Americans who self-identify as Black are less than 50 percent African in ancestry.

During the oppression of the apartheid in South Africa, one drop of sub-Saharan blood was not enough to qualify an individual as Black. South African law maintained a major distinction between those who were “Black” and those who were “colored.” When it was unclear from a person's physical appearance which racial classification they belonged to,” the pencil test was employed. This test involved inserting a pencil into a person's hair to determine if the hair was kinky enough for the pencil to get stuck. If the pencil did not fall right out of the person’s hair, that individual was deemed Black.

Preponderance of Ancestry

Increasingly, the one-drop rule and the reverse one-drop rule are being replaced by another methodology of deciding who is Black and who is White. In this definition, a person's race is expressed in terms of where most of their ancestors come from.

Scholar Dickerson writes, "Easily one-third of Blacks have white DNA." And accordingly, she wonders why, in light of this, so much of the focus on tracing ancestry in the Black community has been focused on finding a link back to a region in Africa. She holds that in ignoring White ancestry, Blacks are denying their fully articulated multi-racial identities, which developed in America over centuries.

According to scholar, J. Phillipe Rushton, who believes that gaps in IQ scores among races represent genetic differences between such races. He has said, “Yes, to a certain extent all the races blend into each other. That is true in any biological classification system. However, most people can be clearly identified with one race or another. In both everyday life and evolutionary biology, a ‘Black’ is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in sub-Saharan Africa. A ‘White’ is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in Europe. And an [Asian] is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in East Asia. Modern DNA studies give rather much the same results.”

Yet, according to scholar, Michael Levin: “Hybrid populations with multiple lines of descent are to be characterized in just those terms: as of multiple descent.” He said. “Thus, American “negroids” are individuals most of whose ancestors from 15 to 5,000 generations ago were sub- Saharan African. Specifying 'most' more precisely in a way that captures ordinary usage may not be possible. Less than 50 percent seems too low a threshold; my sense is that ordinary attributions of race begin to stabilize at 75 percent.

Meanwhile the company DNAPrint Genomics analyzes DNA to determine the exact percentage of Indo-European, sub-Saharan, East Asian and Native American heritage someone has, and assigns the person to the category of White, Black, East Asian, Native American or mixed race accordingly. This is consistent with U.S. sociologist Troy Duster and ethicist Pilar Ossorio who have tried to warn how classifying race along the lines of outward features, alone, is far too complicated. They have said, “Some percentage of people who look White will possess genetic markers indicating that a significant majority of their recent ancestors were African. Some percentage of people who look Black will possess genetic markers indicating the majority of their recent ancestors were European.”

In Popular Culture

  • Someone having literally one drop of Black blood in him is a plot point in Show Boat.

  • In the Family Guy episode "Peter Griffin: Husband, Father...Brother?," Peter discovers that he has a Black ancestor from slave days. Despite being no more than one-sixteenth Black, probably even less, he describes himself as Black throughout the episode and attends events with a primarily Black audience making fun of the fact that people will classify you as Black even if you have one ancestor and disregard any other heritage you may have.

Sources:;;  W. Augustus Low, Virgil A. Clift: "Civil Rights," Encyclopedia of Black America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981, pp. 243-244; Pauli Murray, ed. States’ Laws on Race and Color, Athens, 1997; “The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: 'Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro',” Journal of Southern History 68, no. 1, 2002: 65-106; Virginia R. Dominguez, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana, New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University, 1986; Madison Grant, The Passing of The Great Race, 1916; Sweet, Frank W., Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule; Rushton J. P., Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective, Charles Darwin Research Inst. Pr; 3rd edition, 2000; Levin M., The Race Concept: A Defense, Behavior and Philosophy

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Wednesday, February 20th 2008 at 4:20PM

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what? "scholar" needs to reference the human genome project and move away from societal constructs, including companies that do dna testing to tell your "race." dangerous article impedes the understanding of cultures.
Wednesday, October 29th 2008 at 4:02PM
Marta Fernandez
I'm glad that i am an African American and i don't see anything wrong with the one-drop. One drop actually put you in a racial category which will help a person know where they fit in.
Monday, December 15th 2008 at 12:59PM
Guest Visitor
There is absolutely NO SUCH THING as
a so-called 'Light-Skinned Black' person.
The term of 'Light-Skinned Black' is simply a racist
oxymoron that was created by racial supremacists
in an effort to deny people who are of a Mixed-Race
Lineage the right to embrace their full-Lineage and
to have said lineage publicly acknowledged as well.
The very term of 'Light-Skinned Black' is based
on the application of the 'black-lineage mocking',
non-scientific and racist 'One Drop Rule' (ODR).
In itís decision in the 1967 "Loving" case, the U.S.
Supreme Court stated that the racist-'One-Drop Rule'
(ODR) was UN-Constitutional (i.e. illegal, outlawed,
banned, unenforceable, non-applicable, etc.) and in
this decision, the high court also described the vile
ODR by such terms as 'odious' and as 'repugnant'.
Here are a few 'Reference' Links for any
and everyone who refuses to accept vile
views of the racist-'One-Drop Rule' (ODR)

Sunday, December 25th 2011 at 10:37PM
AllPeople Gifts
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