Color Differentiation in the American Systems of Slavery

Color Differentiation in the American Systems of Slavery

The Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Volume 3, Number 3 (Winter, 1973)
pages 509-541

Donald L. Horowitz, James B. Duke Professor of Law and Political Science
Duke University

In the comparative study of race relations, the evolution of group identity constitutes a central process. Although group boundaries tend to be taken as given, they are more fluid than is often supposed. The criteria of membership may change, and the inclusiveness of the groups may expand or contract accordingly.

The forces promoting the redefinition of ethnic group boundaries are only imperfectly understood. This applies particularly to the emergence of new groups. While the study of assimilation lias received much attention, the study of differentiation has not. Ethnic contact and the progeny it produces, for example, provide opportunities for the creation of new ethnic categories. But the opportunities arc not always taken. In some cases, distinctive “mixed-blood” groups emerge; in others, the offspring are incorporated in one or another of the original groups.

Examples of this process of group differentiation may be found in the history of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Some slave systems differentiated “mulattoes” from Africans and bestowed varying degrees of separate status; others suppressed such possible distinctions. Everywhere rules were formulated to define the boundaries of the respective groups, to specify the criteria of identification, to categorize marginal cases, and to permit individual exceptions to the rules of group membership…

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