Cultural Inversion and the One-Drop Rule: An Essay on Biology, Racial Classification, and the Rhetoric of Racial Transcendence

Cultural Inversion and the One-Drop Rule: An Essay on Biology, Racial Classification, and the Rhetoric of Racial Transcendence

Albany Law Review
Volume 72, Issue 4 (2009)
Pages 909-928

Deborah W. Post, Professor Emeritus of Law
Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg School of Law
Central Islip, New York

The great paradox in contemporary race politics is exemplified in the narrative constructed by and about President Barack Obama. This narrative is all about race even as it makes various claims about the diminished significance of race: the prospect of racial healing, the ability of a new generation of Americans to transcend race or to choose their own identity, and the emergence of a postracial society. While I do not subscribe to the post-racial theories that have been floated in the press and other media, I do believe that something of great cultural significance occurred which made the candidacy and the election of Barack Obama possible. This essay is an attempt on my part to consider what that change might have been by examining the relationship between science and social change, language and cultural categories, and the role law has played, if any, in dismantling the structures of racism.

What I have to say has very little to do with biology, except to the extent that racial classification is a cultural practice that sometimes deploys biological arguments strategically. Early in the Twentieth century sociologists and anthropologists noted that in the United States, race was more a matter of caste than class and that, unlike other caste systems, it is not cultural, but “biological.” In a racial caste, one sociologist argued, “the criterion is primarily physiognomic, usually chromatic, with socio-economic differences implied.”  Another noted that “American caste is pinned not to cultural but to biological features—to color, features, hair form, and the like.” Biology was used in this early sociological literature on race in a way that made it synonymous with physical appearance or physical characteristics. In politics and legal discourse at the time, racial purity was about “blood” and rules of descent…

…In this article, my thesis is simple. If racial caste has been upended by changes in legal rules that created a hierarchical racial structure, its demise also has been hastened by the use of symbols, a strategy of cultural inversion with respect to the meaning of race.  The operative terms of a centuries-old debate have been inverted. Instead of policing racial purity with arguments about blood and biology or the modern version of them, DNA and genes, these instruments of exclusion, the tools of white supremacists and segregationists, have been used effectively, most recently by Barack Obama, to demonstrate the physical connection between groups that are still treated discursively, politically and socially, as racially distinct…

…The movement to escape the one-drop rule, the rule that examines blood lines as far back as five generations or more, if that is what the multiracial movement is all about, is not, as far as I know, a movement that began in the black community. A major proponent is a white woman, Susan Graham, founder of “Project RACE,” which is the acronym for Reclassify All Children Equally.  What Susan Graham demands is that the children of parents who come from different races be acknowledged as the product of both groups. In other words, this white mother of a child or children whose father is a black man demands that the public, the discourse, the political  instrumentalities, the private institutions, acknowledge the status of her child as white as well as black…

…The demand for multiracial identity for the children of interracial marriage, however, may be explained in terms of a desire for status as long as we live in a society in which there is still a clear racial hierarchy. The demand that multiracial children be recognized as partly white did not come from blacks.  Nor is it surprising that Susan Graham, a major advocate for the multiracial category on the United States Census found an ally in Newt Gingrich, who opined that such a category might “‘be an important step toward transcending racial division.’” The enthusiasm for such alternative classifications leads skeptics to believe that this system of reclassification and the rhetoric of transcendence will make it easy to ignore the reality and the structure of racism.

It may be that the promotion of a multiracial identity provides some white parents with the assurance that they have not been rejected by their own children. Their children are part of them and, therefore, partly white. People who cross racial lines to marry do not leave behind all of their attitudes towards race; their internalized assumptions about racial characteristics and racial hierarchy can be a source of misunderstanding, a vulnerability that at the very worst can injure or divide family members…

Read the entire article here.

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