The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States for the social classification as Negro of individuals with any African ancestry; meaning any person with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black. The principle of “invisible blackness” was an example of hypodescent, the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union between different socioeconomic or ethnic groups to the group with the lower status. The one-drop rule was not adopted as law until the 20th century: first in Tennessee in 1910 and in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 (following the passage of similar laws in several other states).
Despite the strictures of slavery, in the antebellum years, free people of mixed race could have up to one-eighth or one-quarter African ancestry (depending on the state) and be considered legally white. :68 More 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. Because of the social mobility of antebellum society, many people did not have documentation about their ancestors.
Thomas Jefferson is widely believed to have fathered four surviving mixed-race children with his slave Sally Hemings, who was three-quarters white by ancestry. Her children were born into slavery but, as they were seven-eighths European in ancestry, they were legally white under Virginia law of the time. Jefferson allowed the two oldest to escape in 1822 (freeing them legally would have made it public); the two youngest he freed in his 1826 will. Three of the four entered white society as adults, and all their descendants identified as white.
In the United States, White Americans usually classified people of partial Native American descent as Native American, in a similar example of hypodescent. In the early years of these types of unions and marriages, the fathers were usually white and the mothers Native American. Many Native American tribes had matrilineal descent systems, so within those communities, the children were considered by tradition to belong to the mother’s clan. It was tradition for the mother’s eldest brother to play a major role in the life of all her children, more important than that of the father within the tribe, as the uncle looked out for the children within his clan, the father belonging to a different clan. Among such tribes, mixed-race children could be absorbed into the culture, as had been the case traditionally with captives of any race who were adopted.
Among other tribes, such as the Omaha, which was patrilineal, the full-bloods considered a half-breed a “white man” if he had a white father, which was their application of hypodescent. Half-breeds could belong officially to the Omaha tribe only if they were adopted into it.
In the United States, the concept of the one-drop rule has been chiefly applied by White Americans to those of sub-Saharan black African ancestry in the aftermath of slavery, as they were trying to impose white supremacy. The poet Langston Hughes wrote in his 1940 memoir:
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.
Legislation and practice
Both before and after the American Civil War, many people of mixed ancestry who “looked white” and were of mostly white ancestry were legally absorbed into the white majority. State laws established differing standards. For instance, in 1822 Virginia law stated that to be defined as “mulatto” (that is, multi-racial), a person had to have at least one-quarter (equivalent to one grandparent) African ancestry. This was a looser definition than the state’s 20th-century “one-drop rule” under the 1924 Racial Integrity Act. This defined a person as legally “colored” (black) for classification and legal purposes if the individual had any African ancestry. Social acceptance and identification were generally the key.
Although the Virginia legislature increased restrictions on free blacks following the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, it refrained from establishing a one-drop rule. When a proposal was made by Travis H. Eppes and debated in 1853, people realized that such a rule could adversely affect whites. During the debate, a person wrote to the Charlottesville newspaper:
[If a one-drop rule were adopted], I doubt not, if many who are reputed to be white, and are in fact so, do not in a very short time find themselves instead of being elevated, reduced by the judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction, to the level of a free negro.
The state legislators agreed delaying until 1924 their passage of such a law.
The Melungeons are a group of multiracial families of mostly European and African ancestry whose ancestors were free in colonial Virginia. They migrated to the frontier in Kentucky and Tennessee. Their descendants have been documented over the decades as having tended to marry persons classified as “white”. Their descendants became assimilated into the majority culture from the 19th into the 20th centuries.
At the South Carolina constitutional convention in 1895, an anti-miscegenation law and changes that would disfranchise blacks were proposed. Delegates debated a proposal for a one-drop rule in these laws. George D. Tillman said the following in opposition:
If the law is made as it now stands respectable families in Aiken, Barnwell, Colleton, and Orangeburg will be denied the right to intermarry among people with whom they are now associated and identified. At least one hundred families would be affected to my knowledge. They have sent good soldiers to the Confederate Army, and are now landowners and taxpayers. Those men served creditably, and it would be unjust and disgraceful to embarrass them in this way. 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. The pure-blooded white has needed and received a certain infusion of darker blood to give him readiness and purpose. 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; to statements on the witness stand that the father or grandfather or grandmother had said that A or B had Negro blood in their veins. Any man who is half a man would be ready to blow up half the world with dynamite to prevent or avenge attacks upon the honor of his mother in the legitimacy or purity of the blood of his father.
The one-drop rule was made law, chiefly in the U.S. South but also in other states, in the 20th century – decades after the Civil War, emancipation and Reconstruction, but following the restoration of white supremacy in the South and the passage of Jim Crow racial segregation laws. In the 20th century, it was also associated with the rise of eugenics and ideas of racial purity. From the late 1870s on, white Democrats regained political power in the former Confederate states and passed racial segregation laws controlling public facilities, and laws and constitutions from 1890–1910 to achieve disfranchisement of most blacks. Many poor whites were also disfranchised in these years, by changes to voter registration rules that worked against them, such as literacy tests, longer residency requirements and poll taxes.
The first challenges to such state laws were overruled by Supreme Court decisions which upheld state constitutions that effectively disfranchised many. White Democratic-dominated legislatures proceeded with passing Jim Crow laws that instituted racial segregation in public places and accommodations, and passed other restrictive voting legislation. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court allowed racial segregation of public facilities, under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Jim Crow laws reached their greatest influence during the decades from 1910 to 1930. Among them were hypodescent laws, defining as black anyone with any black ancestry, or with a very small portion of black ancestry. Tennessee adopted such a “one-drop” statute in 1910, and Louisiana soon followed. Then 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 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.
Before 1930, individuals of visible mixed European and African ancestry were usually classed as mulattoes, or sometimes as black and sometimes as white, depending on appearance. Previously, most states had limited trying to define ancestry before “the fourth degree” (great-great-grandparents). In 1930, the Census Bureau stopped using the classification of mulatto, so evidence of the long existence of mixed-race people was lost.
Not only did the one-drop rule disregard the self-identification of people of mostly European ancestry who grew up in white communities, but Walter Plecker ordered application of the 1924 Virginia law in such a way that vital records were changed or destroyed, family members were split on opposite sides of the color line, and there were losses of the documented continuity of mixed-race people who identified as Native American. Over the centuries, many Native American tribes in Virginia had absorbed people of other ethnicities through marriage or adoption, but maintained their cultures. Suspecting blacks of trying to “pass” as Indians, Plecker ordered records changed to classify people only as black or white, and ordered offices to reclassify certain family surnames as black. Since the late 20th century, Virginia has officially recognized eight American Indian tribes; they are trying to gain federal recognition. They have had difficulty because decades of birth, marriage and death records were misclassified under Plecker’s application of the law. No one was classified as Indian, although many individuals and families identified that way and were preserving their cultures.
In the case of mixed-race Native American and European descendants, the one-drop rule in Virginia was extended only so far as those with more than one-sixteenth Indian blood. This was due to what was known as the “Pocahontas exception”. Since many influential First Families of Virginia (FFV) claimed descent from the American Indian Pocahontas and her husband John Rolfe of the colonial era, the Virginia General Assembly declared that an individual could be considered white if having no more than one-sixteenth Indian “blood” (the equivalent of one great-great-grandparent).
The eugenicist Madison Grant of New York wrote in his book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916): “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.” As noted above, Native American tribes such as the Omaha, which had patrilineal descent and inheritance, used hypodescent to classify the children of white men and Native American women as white.
Through the 1940s, Walter Plecker of Virginia and Naomi Drake of Louisiana had an outsize influence. As the Registrar of Statistics, Plecker insisted on labeling mixed-race families of European-African ancestry as black. 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.” A subtext was the assumption that Blacks were somehow “improved” through White admixture. In the 1930s and 1940s, Plecker directed offices under his authority to change vital records and reclassify certain families as colored (without notifying them) after Virginia established a binary system under its Racial Integrity Act of 1924. He also classified people who had formerly self-identified as Indian, as black. When the Supreme Courts struck down Virginia’s law prohibiting inter-racial marriage in Loving v. Virginia (1967), it also declared Plecker’s Virginia Racial Integrity Act and the one-drop rule unconstitutional.
Many people in the U.S., among various ethnic groups, continue to have their own concepts related to the one-drop ideas. They may still consider as multiracial individuals with any African ancestry to be black, or at least non-white (if the person has other minority ancestry), unless the person explicitly identifies as white. Today’s ideas have also been influenced by the Black Power Movement and leaders within the black community, who have claimed as black those persons with any African ancestry, regardless of how they self-identified. In the late 20th and early 21st century, writers such as A.D. Powell, who is multiracial, considers such “claiming” to be another kind of one-drop rule, which ignores people’s life experiences, their community, and how they choose to identify themselves.
Other countries of the Americas
Among the colonial slave societies, the United States was nearly unique in developing the one-drop rule; it derived both from the Southern slave culture (shared by other societies) and the aftermath of the American Civil War, emancipation of slaves, and Reconstruction. In the late 19th century, Southern whites regained political power and restored white supremacy, passing Jim Crow laws and establishing racial segregation by law. By constitutional amendments and voter registration rules, they disfranchised most of the blacks, maintaining white political power in most Southern states, even those that were majority black, into the 1960s.
In the 20th century, during the Black Power Movement, black race-based groups claimed all people of any African ancestry as black in a reverse way, to establish political power. People in many other countries have tended to treat race less rigidly, both in their self-identification and how they regard others. Just as a person with physically recognizable sub-Saharan ancestry can claim to be black in the United States, someone with recognizable Caucasian ancestry may be considered white in Brazil, even if mixed race.
In colonial Spanish America, many soldiers and explorers took indigenous women as wives, and although in time men were able to bring Spanish women to the colonies, these were always a minority. The colonists developed an elaborate classification and caste system that identified the combinations of black, Amerindian and white by different names, related to appearance and known ancestry. Racial caste not only depended on ancestry or skin color, but also could be raised or lowered by the person’s financial status or class.
In December 2002, the Washington Post ran a story on the one-drop theory. In the reporter’s opinion: “Someone with Sidney Poitier’s deep chocolate complexion would be considered white if his hair were straight and he made a living in a profession. That might not seem so odd, Brazilians say, when you consider that the fair-complexioned actresses Rashida Jones (‘Parks and Recreation’ and ‘The Office’) and Lena Horne are identified as black in the United States.”
According to Jose Neinstein, a native white Brazilian and executive director of the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute in Washington, in the United States, “If you are not quite white, then you are black.” However, in Brazil, “If you are not quite black, then you are white.” Neinstein recalls talking with a man of Poitier’s complexion when in Brazil: “We were discussing ethnicity, and I asked him, ‘What do you think about this from your perspective as a black man?’ He turned his head to me and said, ‘I’m not black,’ . . . It simply paralyzed me. I couldn’t ask another question.”
The Washington Post story also described a Brazilian-born woman who for 30 years before immigrating to the United States considered herself a morena. Her skin had a caramel color that is roughly equated with whiteness in Brazil and some other Latin American countries. “I didn’t realize I was black until I came here,” she explained. “‘Where are you from?’ they ask me. I say I’m from Brazil. They say, ‘No, you are from Africa.’ They make me feel like I am denying who I am.”
The same racial culture shock has come to hundreds of thousands of dark-skinned immigrants to the United States from Brazil, Colombia, Panama, and other Latin American nations. Although many are not considered black in their homelands, they have often been considered black in US society. According to the Washington Post, their refusal to accept the United States’ definition of black has left many feeling attacked from all directions. At times, white and black Americans might discriminate against them for their lighter or darker skin tones; African Americans might believe that Afro-Latino immigrants are denying their blackness; and they think lighter-skinned Latinos dominate Spanish-language television and media. A majority of Latin Americans possess some African or Native American ancestry. Many of these immigrants feel it is hard enough to accept a new language and culture without the additional burden of having to transform from white to black. Yvette Modestin, a dark-skinned native of Panama who worked in Boston, said the situation was overwhelming: “There’s not a day that I don’t have to explain myself.”
Professor J.B. Bird has said that Latin America is not alone in rejecting the historical United States’ notion that any visible African ancestry is enough to make one black: “In most countries of the Caribbean, Colin Powell would be described as a Creole, reflecting his mixed heritage. In Belize, he might further be described as a ‘High Creole’, because of his extremely light complexion.” This shows that the perception of race, particularly concerning people of African heritage, is relative to different societies and individuals.
Rice and Powell (on the left) are considered black in the US, Bush and Rumsfeld (on the right) are considered white.
An interesting anecdote to consider was that during this whole period, Puerto Rico had laws like the Regla del Sacar or Gracias al Sacar where a person of black ancestry could be considered legally white so long as they could prove that at least one person per generation in the last four generations had also been legally white. Therefore people of black ancestry with known white lineage were classified as white, the opposite of the “one-drop rule” in the United States.
Racial mixtures of blacks and whites in modern America
Given the intense interest in ethnicity, genetic genealogists and other scientists have studied population groups. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. publicized such genetic studies on his two series African American Lives, shown on PBS. The specialists summarized United States population figures this way:
- 58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5% European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent);
- 19.6 percent of African Americans have at least 25% European ancestry (equivalent of one grandparent);
- 1 percent of African Americans have at least 50% European ancestry (equivalent of one parent) (Gates is one of those, he discovered); and
- 5 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5% Native American ancestry (equivalent to one great-grandparent).
Mark D. Shriver, a molecular anthropologist at Penn State University, has studied population with a team of researchers. In 2002, they published results of a study regarding the racial admixture of Americans who identified as white or black. They recorded the individual’s self-identification and analyzed the genetic make-up of their chromosomes. Their results are estimates and might not be completely accurate. Other researchers have also done population studies.
Shriver surveyed a 3,000-person sample from 25 locations in the United States and tested subjects for genetic make-up. Among those who self-identified as white, the black racial admixture was about 0.7%; which is the equivalent of having 1 black and 127 white ancestors among one’s 128 5×great-grandparents. Nationwide, Shriver estimates that 70% of white Americans have no African ancestors (in part because of the greatly increased immigration from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Among the 30% who do have African ancestry, Shriver estimates their black racial admixture is 2.3%; the equivalent of having had 3 black ancestors among their 128 5×great-grandparents.
Blacks are more racially mixed than whites, reflecting historical experience in the United States, including the close living and working conditions among colonial indentured servants, both black and white, and slaves, when many married or formed unions. Most of the free African-American families in Virginia in colonial years were the descendants of white women and African men. After the American Revolutionary War, their descendants migrated to nearby states along with other Virginia pioneers. The admixture also reflects conditions under slavery, when white planters or their sons, or overseers, often raped African women. There were also freely chosen relationships among individuals of different or mixed races.
Shriver’s study is not complete. In his study, of those persons who identified as black, their total ancestry reveals 18% white ancestry, the equivalent of having 22 white ancestors among their 128 5×great-grandparents. About 10% of blacks have more than 50% white ancestors. Population studies by researchers other than Shriver have found that in general, blacks had an average white ancestry of 25–30%.
Shriver points out that his survey found different admixture rates by region, which would also reflect historic patterns of settlement and change, both in terms of populations who migrated and their descendants’ marriages. For example, the black populations with the highest average white ancestry lived in California and Seattle, both destinations during the Great Migration of 1940-1970. Blacks sampled in those two locations had more than 25% white European ancestry on average.
Charles W. Chesnutt, who was of mixed race and grew up in the North, wrote stories and novels about the issues of mixed-race people in southern society in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The one-drop rule and its consequences have been the subject of numerous works of popular culture. In the musical Show Boat, Steve, a white man who is married to a mixed-race woman (considered black), is pursued by a Southern sheriff, who is going to arrest Steve and charge him with miscegenation. Steve pricks his wife’s finger and swallows some of her blood. When the sheriff arrives, Steve asks him whether he would consider a man to be white if he had “negro blood” in him. The sheriff replies that “one drop of Negro blood makes you a Negro in these parts”. Steve tells the sheriff that he has “more than a drop of negro blood in me”. After being assured by others that Steve is telling the truth, the sheriff leaves without arresting Steve