An essay on the racist and reeking effects and
application of the 'One-Drop Rule' (ODR)as written
by Professor F. James Davis of Illinois State University
THE ONE-DROP RULE DEFINED
To be considered black in the United States not
even half of one's ancestry must be African black.
But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less?
The nation's answer to the question 'Who is black?" has long been
that a black is any person with `any' known African black ancestry.
This definition reflects the long experience with
slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation.
In the South it became known as the "one-drop rule,'' meaning
that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person "black".
It is also known as the "one black ancestor rule,"
some courts have called it the "traceable amount rule,"
and anthropologists call it the "hypo-descent rule,"
meaning that racially mixed persons are
assigned the status of the subordinate group.
This definition emerged from the American South to
become the nation's definition, generally accepted
Blacks had no other choice.
As we shall see, this American cultural definition of "blacks"
is taken for granted as readily by judges, affirmative action
officers, and black protesters as it is by Ku Klux Klansmen.
Let us not be confused by terminology
The term "black" is used [here] for
persons with `any' black African lineage,
not just for unmixed members of
populations from sub-Saharan Africa.
The term "Negro," which is used in certain
historical contexts, means the same thing.
Terms such as "African black," "unmixed Negro,"
and "all black" are used here to refer to "unmixed
blacks "descended from African populations.
We must also pay attention to the terms "mulatto" and "colored".
The term "mulatto" was originally used to mean the
offspring of a "pure African Negro" and a "pure white".
Although the root meaning of mulatto, in Spanish,
is "hybrid," "mulatto" came to include the children of
unions between whites and so-called "mixed Negroes".
For example, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, with
slave mothers and white fathers, were referred to as mulattoes.
To whatever extent their mothers were part
white, these men were more than half white.
Douglass was evidently part Indian as well, and he looked it.
Washington had reddish hair and gray eyes.
At the time of the American Revolution,
many of the founding fathers had some very light slaves,
including some who appeared to be white.
The term "colored" seemed for a time to refer
only to mulattoes, especially lighter ones
With widespread racial mixture, "Negro" came to mean any
slave or descendant of a slave, no matter how much mixed.
Eventually in the United States, the terms mulatto, colored,
Negro, black, and African American all came to mean
people with `any known' black African ancestry.
Mulattoes are racially mixed, to whatever degree,
while the terms black, Negro, African American, and
colored include both mulattoes and unmixed blacks.
As we shall see, these terms have quite
different meanings in other countries.
Whites in the United States need some help envisioning
the American black experience with ancestral fractions.
At the beginning of miscegenation between two
populations presumed to be racially pure, quadroons
appear in the second generation of continuing
mixing with whites, and octoroons in the third.
A quadroon is one-fourth African black and thus easily
classed as "black" in the United States, yet three
of this person's four grandparents are white.
An octoroon has seven white great-grandparents out
of eight and usually looks white or almost so.
Most parents of [so-called] "black" American children in
recent decades have themselves been "racially mixed",
but often the fractions get complicated because the
earlier details of the mixing were obscured generations ago.
Like so many white Americans, black people are
forced to speculate about some of the fractions-
- one-eighth this, three-sixteenths that, and so on.
THE UNIQUENES OF THE ONE-DROP RULE
Not only does the one-drop rule APPLY TO NO OTHER
GROUP than American "blacks", but apparently the rule
is unique in that it is found only in the United States
and NOT IN ANY OTHER NATION IN THE WORLD.
In fact, definitions of who is "black" vary quite sharply
from country to country, and for this reason people in other
countries often express consternation about our definition.
James Baldwin relates a revealing incident that occurred in 1956 at
the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists held in Paris.
The head of the delegation of writers and artists
from the United States was John Davis.
The French chairperson introduced Davis and
then asked him why he considered himself `Negro',
since he certainly did not look like one.
Baldwin wrote, "He is a Negro, of course, from the remarkable
`legal point of view which obtains in the United States',
but more importantly, as he tried to make clear
to his interlocutor, he was a Negro by choice and
`by depth of involvement' -- by experience, in fact".
The phenomenon known as "passing as white" is difficult
to explain in other countries or to foreign students.
Typical questions are:
"Shouldn't Americans say that a person who is
passing as white is white, or nearly all white,
and has previously been passing as black?" or
"To be consistent, shouldn't you say that someone
who is one-eighth white is passing as black?" or
"Why is there so much concern, since the so-called blacks
who pass take so little negroid ancestry with them?"
Those who ask such questions need to realize that "passing" is
`much more a social phenomenon' than a biological one, reflecting
the nation's `unique definition' of what makes a person "black".
The concept of "passing" rests on the one-drop rule
and on folk beliefs about race and miscegenation,
not on biological or historical fact.
The "black" experience with passing as white in the
United States contrasts with the experience of other `ethnic'
minorities that have features that are clearly non-caucasoid.
The concept of passing applies only to [so-called] "blacks"
consistent with the nation's `unique definition' of the group.
A person who is one-fourth or less American Indian or Korean
or Filipino is not regarded as passing if he or she intermarries
and joins fully the life of the dominant community,
so the minority ancestry need not be hidden.
It is often suggested that the key reason for this is that the
'physical differences' between these other groups and whites are
'less pronounced' than the physical differences between African
blacks and whites, and therefore are 'less threatening' to whites.
However, keep in mind that the one-drop rule and anxiety
about passing originated during slavery and later received
powerful reinforcement under the Jim Crow system.
For the physically visible groups other than "blacks",
miscegenation promotes assimilation,
despite barriers of prejudice and discrimination
during two or more generations of racial mixing.
As noted above, when ancestry in one of these
racial minority groups does not exceed one-fourth,
a person is not defined solely as a member of that group.
Masses of white European immigrants have climbed the
class ladder not only through education but also with the
help of close personal relationships in the dominant community,
intermarriage, and ultimately full cultural and social assimilation.
Young people tend to marry people they
meet in the same informal social circles.
For visibly non-caucasoid minorities other than
[so-called] "blacks" in the United States, this
entire route to full assimilation is slow but possible.
For all persons of `any known' black lineage, however,
assimilation is blocked and is not promoted by miscegenation.
Barriers to full opportunity and participation for "blacks"
are still formidable, and a fractionally-"black" person
cannot escape these obstacles without "passing" as `whit'
and cutting off all ties to the"black" family and community.
The pain of this separation, and condemnation by the
"black" family and community, are major reasons why many
or most of those who could "pass" as' white' choose not to.
Loss of security within the minority community, and
fear and distrust of the white world are also factors.
It should now be apparent that the definition of a "black"
person as one with `any trace at all' of black African ancestry
is inextricably woven into the history of the United States.
It incorporates beliefs once used to justify slavery and later
used to buttress the caste-like Jim Crow system of segregation.
Developed in the South, the definition
and became the nation's social and legal definition.
Because "blacks" are defined according to the `one-drop rule', they
are a socially constructed category in which there is wide variation
in racial traits and therefore not a race group in the scientific
However, because that category has a definite
status position in the society it has become a
self-conscious social group with an `ethnic' "identity".
The one-drop rule has long been taken for granted throughout
the United States
and the federal courts have taken
"judicial notice" of it as being a matter of common knowledge.
State courts have generally upheld the one-drop rule,
but some have limited the definition to one thirty-second or
one-sixteenth or one-eighth black ancestry, or made other
limited exceptions for persons with both Indian and black ancestry.
Most Americans seem unaware that `this definition' of
"blacks" is extremely unusual in other countries, perhaps
even unique to the United States, and that AMERICANS
DEFINE NO OTHER MINORITY GROUP IN A SIMILAR WAY....
We must first distinguish racial traits from cultural traits,
since they are so often confused with each other.
As defined in physical anthropology and biology,' races' are
'categories of human beings based on average differences in
physical traits that are transmitted by the genes not by blood.
`Culture' is a shared pattern of behavior and beliefs that are
learned and transmitted through social communication.
An `ethnic group' is a group with a sense of cultural
identity, such as Czech or Jewish Americans,
but it may also be a racially distinctive group.
A group that is racially distinctive in society may
be an `ethnic' group as well, but not necessarily.
Although "racially mixed", most [so-called] "blacks" in the United
States are physically distinguishable from whites, but they are
also an `ethnic' group because of the distinctive culture they
have developed within the general American framework.
((F. James Davis is a retired professor
of sociology at Illinois State University.
He is the author of numerous books, including 'Who is Black?
One Nation's Definition' (1991), from which this excerpt was taken.
Reprinted with permission of Penn State University Press