U.S. still clings to ‘one-drop rule’

Yawu Miller | 12/27/2017, 9:52 a.m.

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 A Louisiana law, repealed in 1983, assigned residents as “colored” if one thirty-second of their ancestry included African descent.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.