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U.S. still clings to ‘one-drop rule’

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO

Despite growing up with a white mother and black father, Roxbury defense attorney Christian Williams sees himself as black. Coming of age in Providence in the 1970s and ’80s, it wasn’t difficult to discern what racial category society reserved for mixed-race children, especially once Williams began driving.

“I got pulled over all the time,” he says.

But on a visit to Tanzania, Williams’ assertions of black identity were challenged when locals several times asserted that he was white.

“It’s related to class,” Williams said of the Tanzanian racial classification. “They saw me as a rich American, which to them equals white.”

While most Americans view the children of mixed-race families as black, other countries’ societies make room for more nuanced understandings of race. Many trace America’s rigid attitudes toward race back to the so-called one-drop rule, which holds that any discernable amount of non-white blood disqualifies a person from whiteness.

Although never codified into federal law, the one-drop rule was used as recently as 1980, when a Louisiana woman was denied her request to be classified as white on her birth certificate because of a black ancestor four generations back. A Louisiana law, repealed in 1983, assigned residents as “colored” if one thirty-second of their ancestry included African descent.


Multiracial study

A recent study by University of Michigan social psychologist Arnold Ho suggests that the one-drop rule remains the bedrock of American attitudes toward the children of black-white couples. Ho and two other researchers interviewed 200 U.S.-born black subjects and 200 U.S.-born whites on how they would classify mixed-race children.

“I think the main takeaway from our work is that both blacks and whites show a tendency to categorize and think about black-white multiracials as more black than white,” Ho told the Banner.

Ho and Chen asked participants a series of questions probing their attitudes on equality between different racial groups as well as asking questions about children of black-white unions, such as, “Do you think the kid should be thought of as relatively black or relatively white?” and, “Do you think the kid will look more black or white?”

The majority of both black and white respondents indicated that they thought of such children as being more black than white. Interestingly, white respondents who espoused anti-egalitarian views were more likely to see such children as more black. Similarly, blacks who believed such children would face discrimination perceived them to be more black.

“Discrimination against black-white multiracials is widely acknowledged in the black community, at least according to our respondents,” Ho said.

Expanding identity

In the 2000 U.S. Census, respondents were for the first time able to check off a box for “two or more races,” the first official acknowledgement of complex racial identities since the 1800s, when the Census had categories including “mulatto,” “quadroon” and “octoroon” for people who were counted as half, a quarter or an eighth black. The recent change came after a concerted push by activists born of black and white parents who felt that the Census failed to capture the complexity of their identities.

In the 2000 Census, more than 7 million people claimed two or more races, with 737,492 identifying as black/white people. In 2010, the number of people claiming two or more races rose to more than 9 million people.

Geneticists believe that virtually all African Americans have white blood. Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. culled data from five DNA testing sites and found that the average African American had between 19 percent and 29 percent white ancestry. While some subjects showed as much as 95 percent African ancestry, none of the African American subjects tested by the five ancestry groups was found to have no European blood. All were effectively multiracial.

Gates’ data suggests that African Americans are, essentially, a mixed-race group.

“What this means is that even the most phenotypically ‘African’ (or what used to be called ‘Negroid’) African Americans have dramatically significant levels of European ancestry, a fact that would have astonished many of our forebears, both black and white,” Gates wrote in a 2013 article on The Root.

Persistent attitudes

The fact that most blacks don’t claim whiteness and most whites don’t claim blacks as members of their ethnic group underscores the persistence of the one-drop rule thinking.

In a recent study, Ho used a computer morphing program that allowed test subjects to alter images of whites until they appear African American, and vice-versa. Both skin tone and phenotypes (shapes of faces, noses, lips eyes) were morphed in the test. When subjects started with an image of a white and began morphing it to an African American, on average they identified the image as appearing black 40 percent of the way through the process. But when done the opposite way, from black to white, subjects did not identify subjects as appearing white until they were almost 70 percent of the way through the process.

“There’s a difference in threshold for being considered black and white,” Ho says.

In other words, in the American imagination, it’s easier to start off white and become black than it is to start off black and become white. Genetics aside, the idea of blackness is like a stubborn stain in the American imagination.

Black on his own terms

Williams learned to navigate the color line in his youth. He was raised by his Italian-American grandparents, attended integrated schools in Providence and was challenged by his classmates when he claimed Italian heritage. He identifies as black, but says that the black identity is a contrivance.

His own heritage aside, Williams notes there’s a troubling undercurrent to the one-drop rule that to this day governs perceptions of race in the United States.

“What does ‘black’ mean?” he says. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a social construct. In the context of the United States, I’m black. When I’m walking down the street, 99 percent of Americans think I’m black. These distinctions are made up, in service to white supremacy.”

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