The Devil and the One Drop Rule: Racial Categories, African Americans and the U.S. Census

The Devil and the One Drop Rule: Racial Categories, African Americans and the U.S. Census

Michigan Law Review
Volume 95, Number 5 (March 1997)
pages 1161-1265

Christine B. Hickman, Associate Professor of Law
California Western School of Law

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • I. Treatment of Mixed-Race People: The Early Legal Record
    • A. The First African Americans and the First Race Mixing
    • B. Mulattoes: Black by Law
    • C. A Study in Contrasts: Exclusion of Mulattoes from De Crèvecoeur’s “New Race of Men”
    • D. The Census and the Mulatto Category, 1850-1910
  • II. Proposals for a Multiracial Category: Critiquing the Discourse
    • A. The One Drop Rule: The Misapprehension of the Historical Context
      1. Misperceptions of the One Drop Rule: Gotanda’s Theories of Racial Purity, Objectivity and Subordination in Recognition
      2. The One Drop Rule and “Buying into the System of Racial Domination”
      3. Lessons from the South African Experience
    • B. Rebiologizing Race
      1. The Collapse of Biological Race
      2. Proposals for a Broad Genetically Based Multiracial Category
      3. The Proposal for a Majoritarian Classification System
      4. Biological Passing for Black
      5. The Harlem Renaissance and Cultural
      6. Race, Biology and the Law: The Racial Credential Cases
    • C. The Dangers of Redefining Black: Distancing.
      1. Finding Solutions for the Lighter Part of the Race
      2. Sanitizing our Attacks on Racism
      3. Conclusion
  • III. From the One Drop Rule to the Discourse on Race
    • A. There is Race
    • B. Race as a Metaphor
    • C. Essential vs. Cultural Concepts of Race
    • D. Race as a Choice
      1. Appiah, Lee, and the Choice of Our Racial Identity
      2. Choice Today
      3. The Choice of Our Race by Daily Actions
  • IV. A Proposal for the Census
    • A. The Broad, Blood-based Multiracial Category
    • B. Counting Loving’s Children on the Race Line
      1. Multiracial Status as Race
      2. The False Choice Between Race and Multirace
      3. The Multiracial Category on the “Race” Line: Guaranteed Inaccuracy
    • C. A Line of Their Own.
  • Conclusion

For generations, the boundaries of the African-American race have been formed by a rule, informally known as the “one drop rule,” which, in its colloquial definition, provides that one drop of Black blood makes a person Black. In more formal, sociological circles, the rule is known as a form of “hypodescent” and its meaning remains basically the same: anyone with a known Black ancestor is considered Black. Over the generations, this rule has not only shaped countless lives, it has created the African-American race as we know it today, and it has defined not just the history of this race but a large part of the history of America.

Now as the millennium approaches, social forces require some rethinking of this important, old rule. Plessy v. Ferguson, which affirmed the right of states to mandate “equal but separate accommodations” for White and “colored” train passengers, is a century old. Brown v. Board of Education, which effectively overruled Plessy and instituted the end of de jure discrimination, was decided over a generation ago. Nearly thirty years have passed since the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, invalidated any prohibition against interracial marriage as unconstitutional. Since the 1967 Loving decision, the number of interracial marriages has nearly quadrupled. This trend has even extended to Black-White couples, whose intermarriage rate has traditionally lagged behind that of other racial and ethnic groups. For the first time, opinion polls indicate that more Americans approve of interracial marriage than disapprove. The number of children born to parents of different races has increased dramatically, and some of the offspring of these interracial marriages have assumed prominent roles in American popular culture.

Some of these children of interracial marriages are now arguing cogently for a reappraisal of hypodescent. Their movement has sprung to public consciousness with the recent bid by multiracial organizations, over the objections of civil rights groups, to put a “multiracial” category in the “race” section of the forms that will be used when the next decennial census is conducted in the year 2000. This proposal has immense practical importance because the census provides the nation with its main source of racial and ethnic data. For example, implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 all depend on racial and ethnic statistics culled from the census, and the addition of a new category could change the count of the existing racial groups and alter the way these laws are implemented.

One wing of this new multiracial movement argues that a new “multiracial box” should be made available for the growing number of children of interracial marriages. Another wing of this movement, in books and law review articles, suggests that the addition of this category should be part of a wholesale redefinition of the racial identities of most Americans. The thinking of both wings of the multiracial movement is informed by their rejection of hypodescent and the “one drop rule.” To date, the participants in this discourse have emphasized the racist notions of White racial purity that gave rise to the one drop rule. They have concluded that the effects of this old rule are mainly evil and that the consequences of abandoning it will be mainly good. Based in part on such reasoning, the more activist wing of this movement has proposed several neat, symmetrical, and radical redefinitions of African-American racial identity. Under one such proposed definition, any Black person with White or Native American ancestry would become “multiracial.” Under another, any Black person with a “majority of [his] origins in the original peoples of Europe” would become European American.

My purpose in this article is to critique this discourse. I agree that the one drop rule had its origins in racist notions of White purity. However, many scholars have misunderstood the way that this rule has shaped the Black experience in America, and this misunderstanding has distorted their proposals for a new multiracial category on the census forms. As we examine the one drop rule and its importance in the current discourse, we should recall the famous exchange between Faust and Goethe’s Devil:

Faust: Say at least, who you are?

Mephistopheles: I am part of that power which ever wills evil yet ever accomplishes good.

So it was with the one drop rule. The Devil fashioned it out of racism, malice, greed, lust, and ignorance, but in so doing he also accomplished good: His rule created the African-American race as we know it today, and while this race has its origins in the peoples of three continents and its members can look very different from one another, over the centuries the Devil’s one drop rule united this race as a people in the fight against slavery, segregation, and racial injustice…

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