Historical Origins of the One-Drop Racial Rule in the United States

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, United States on 2014-10-27 20:48Z by Steven

Historical Origins of the One-Drop Racial Rule in the United States

Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies
Volume 1, Issue 1 (2014)
pages 98-132

Winthrop D. Jordan (1931-2007), Emeritus Professor of History and African-American Studies
University of Mississippi

Edited by:

Paul Spickard, Professor of History; Professor of Asian American Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara

Issue cover

Winthrop Jordan, one of the most honored of US historians, wrote about racial mixing a generation before there was a field of mixed race studies. At the time of his death, he left an unfinished manuscript: “Historical Origins of the One-Drop Racial Rule in the United States.” For this inaugural issue of the JCMRS, Jordan’s former student Paul Spickard, himself a foundational scholar of multiracial studies from the first wave of scholarship in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has edited Jordan’s final article.

The One-Drop Rule: The US Anomaly and Its Fateful Consequences

Historians and scholars in other disciplines have generated a huge corpus of studies about the concept of race while ignoring, for the most part, one of the most important features of race relations in the United States. In this country, the social standard for individuals is superficially simple: if a person of whatever age or gender is believed to have any African ancestry, that person is regarded as black. Basically, by this social rule, a person was, and is, either black or not. Any person of racially or ethnically mixed descent who has some “Negro blood” has been or still is regarded as “colored,” or “African,” or “Negro,” or “black,” or “Afro-American,” or “African American”—whatever designation has prevailed by convention at the time. This social rule has been easy to overlook because it is so close to home, often in a personal way, and because it involves self-identification as well as identification of others. Almost all people in the United States tend to operate perceptually and conceptually according to this simple social rule concerning race without stopping to question its logic. Why question the way the world works when that way is so obvious? And far from questioning the rule, many Americans seem almost resistant to acknowledging its existence, and some of those who have thought about the rule angrily assign blame to some nefarious group for promoting it.

When it comes to race, Americans see themselves, and many overseas people as well, in a bicolored fashion—either/or—black or white. Surely this is an interesting chromometric assessment of skin complexion. We should ask ourselves why nearly all the people playing on basketball courts are said to be one of the same two colors as piano keys. For one thing, no human being has a complexion that is fully black or completely white. And all these players, whether white or black, have a light and dark side of their hands. In addition, bifurcating these or any people subtly negates the underlying unity of humankind and its common genetic and historical roots.

In the United States some medical geneticists have blithely ignored the one-drop rule while urging genetic profiles of different races as they relate to susceptibility to different diseases. These proposals have been strongly denounced by some geneticists and by scholars in other disciplines who point to the obvious fact that a great many socially defined African Americans have a genetic background that is far less than even fifty percent African. Historians have been less prone to disagreement among themselves, but they have simply been neglectful about asking how and why this social rule developed. The focus in this inquiry is on the social aspects of the rule, and thus the definition of the rule used here is somewhat broader than is necessary when discussing the genetics of its operation.

The term “one-drop rule” has its own rather curious history. It was used repeatedly in scholarly works on race relations more than a generation ago. Today, it can be found in a wide variety of publications that deal with race relations in the United States. Yet the lexical community has been either negligent or resistant about the term, for as of a very few years ago, all the purportedly unabridged dictionaries of the English language and their updated collegiate versions did not include it. These dictionaries have begun to catch up as dictionaries and facsimiles like Wikipedia have become ubiquitous online. Even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which is supposedly based on historical principles, has an online version that now includes the term. The phrase currently appears in many books, magazines, and on the Internet, firmly supported by its conciseness in referring to a powerful social rule…

Read the entire article here.

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The JCMRS inaugural issue will be released Summer, 2013

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, United States on 2013-03-18 03:35Z by Steven

The JCMRS inaugural issue will be released on Summer, 2013

Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies
c/o Department of Sociology
SSMS Room 3005
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California  93106-9430
E-Mail: socjcmrs@soc.ucsb.edu

The Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies (JCMRS) is a peer-reviewed online journal dedicated to developing the field of Critical Mixed Race Studies (CMRS) through rigorous scholarship. Launched in 2011, it is the first academic journal explicitly focused on Critical Mixed Race Studies.

JCMRS is transracial, transdisciplinary, and transnational in focus and emphasizes the critical analysis of the institutionalization of social, cultural, and political orders based on dominant conceptions and constructions of ‘race.’ JCMRS emphasizes the constructed nature and thus mutability of race and the porosity of racial boundaries in order to critique processes of racialization and social stratification based on race. JCMRS addresses local and global systemic injustices rooted in systems of racialization.

Sponsored by University of California, Santa Barbara’s Sociology Department, JCMRS is hosted on the eScholarship Repository, which is part of the eScholarship initiative of the California Digital Library. JCMRS functions as an open-access forum for critical mixed race studies scholars and will be available without cost to anyone with access to the Internet.

Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2013 will include:


  1. “Historical Origins of the One-Drop Racial Rule in the United States”—Winthrop Jordan edited by Paul Spickard
  2. “Retheorizing the Relationship Between New Mestizaje and New Multiraciality as Mixed Race Identity Models”—Jessie Turner
  3. “Critical Mixed Race Studies: New Directions in the Politics of Race and Representation,” Keynote Address presented at the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference, November 5, 2010, DePaul UniversityAndrew Jolivétte
  4. “Only the News We Want to Print”—Rainier Spencer
  5. “The Current State of Multiracial Discourse”—Molly McKibbin
  6. “Slimy Subjects and Neoliberal Goods”—Daniel McNeil

Editorial Board

Founding Editors: G. Reginald Daniel, Wei Ming Dariotis, Laura Kina, Maria P. P. Root, and Paul Spickard

Editor-in-Chief: G. Reginald Daniel

Managing Editors: Wei Ming Dariotis and Laura Kina

Editorial Review Board: Stanley R. Bailey, Mary C. Beltrán, David Brunsma, Greg Carter, Kimberly McClain DaCosta, Michele Elam, Camilla Fojas, Peter Fry, Kip Fulbeck, Rudy Guevarra, Velina Hasu Houston, Kevin R. Johnson, Andrew Jolivette, Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain, Laura A. Lewis, Kristen A. Renn, Maria P. P. Root, Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, Gary B. Nash, Kent A. Ono, Rita Simon, Miri Song, Rainier Spencer, Michael Thornton, Peter Wade, France Winddance Twine, Teresa Williams-León, and Naomi Zack

For more information, click here.

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American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Definition of Mulattoes in the British Colonies

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, Law, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2012-02-10 01:03Z by Steven

American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Definition of Mulattoes in the British Colonies

The William and Mary Quarterly
Third Series, Volume 19, Number 2 (April, 1962)
pages 183-200

Winthrop D. Jordan (1931-2007)

The word mulatto is not frequently used in the United States. Americans generally reserve it for biological contexts, because for social purposes a mulatto is termed a Negro. Americans lump together both socially and legally all persons with perceptible admixture of Negro ancestry, thus making social definition without reference to genetic logic; white blood becomes socially advantageous only in overwhelming proportion. The dynamic underlying the peculiar bifurcation of American society into only two color groups can perhaps be better understood if some attempt is made to describe its origin, for the content of social definitions may remain long after the impulses to their formation have gone.

After only one generation of European experience in America, colonists faced the problem of dealing with racially mixed offspring, a problem handled rather differently by the several nations involved. It is well known that the Latin countries, especially Portugal and Spain, rapidly developed a social hierarchy structured according to degrees of intermixture of Negro and European blood, complete with a complicated system of terminology to facilitate definition. The English in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, on the other hand, seem to have created no such system of ranking. To explain this difference merely by comparing the different cultural backgrounds involved is to risk extending generalizations far beyond possible factual support. Study is still needed of the specific factors affecting each nation’s colonies, for there is evidence with some nations that the same cultural heritage was spent in different ways by the colonial heirs,..

Purchase the article here.

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Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United Kingdom on 2011-09-18 04:40Z by Steven

Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction

New York University Press
280 pages
ISBN-10: 0814709966; ISBN-13: 978-0814709962
9 x 6 x 1 inches

This book is out of print.

Judith R. Berzon

The mulatto character has captured the imagination of American novelist in every period of our literature.  For American writers, the mulatto has long signified a “marginal man,” caught between two cultures and between the boundaries of the American caste system. As such, the mulatto’s biological and psychological responses to his status—attraction and repulsion to both the white an non-white castes—have frequently been fictionalized.

Neither White Nor Black is the first comprehensive study of the mulatto character in American fiction.  It is interdisciplinary in approach, drawing from literature, history, sociology, psychology and biology, and assessing the influence of racist ideology, social mythology and historical reality upon the portrayal of the mulatto character.  Dr. Berzon examines how the self-concepts of mixed-blood characters are affected by black-white mythology and explores the roles mulattoes have played in American culture.  Among the 19th an 20th-century black and white authors examined here are Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren and John A. Williams.

In Part I of the book, Dr. Berzon provides an introduction to the historical, sociological and scientific backgrounds of the fiction; an overview of the novels; and a discussion of the most prevalent sterotype—“the tragic mulatto.”  Part II defines and illustrates the forms of adjustment to marginality.  Each chapter is organized around a specific mode of adjustment—passing for white, becoming a member of the black bourgeosie, working as leader of his/her race, and failing to achieve identification with either the white or black group.  In the Postscript, Dr. Berzon examines three novels of the 1970s by important black authors—John A. Williams, Ernest J. Gaines, and John Oliver Killens.  Her study is enriched by the recently published but crucial historical scholarship such as Roll, Jordan Roll by Eguene Genovese, White Over Black by Winthrop Jordan, an The Black Image in the White Mind by George Fredrickson, as well as the earlier work by Addison Gayle Jr., The Black Aesthetic.

In Neither White Nor Black, Dr. Berzon reveals the recurring themes in the portrayal of the mulatto character throughout several periods of the 19th and 20th-century American history.  Central to the portrayal of the mulatto during all these periods is the quest for identity, and Dr. Berzon, through her illuminating analysis, provides her readers, whether students of Black studies, American studies, Southern history, literature, or intellectual history, with an essential understanding of that quest and of the role of the mulatto in American society.

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