The One Drop Rule
“In an era where the quantity of blood was the measure of one’s identity, Americans devised a vernacular and legal fractionalization of racial identities in order to determine who was and was not to be counted as white. Mulatto (half-black and half-white), Quadroon (one-quarter black) and Octoroon (one-eighth black) were, in the eyes of the law, not the equivalent of white racial identity. Anti-miscegenation laws were thus further compounded by the one-drop rule.” Debra Thompson
For generations, the boundaries of the African-American race have been formed by a rule, informally known as the “one drop rule,” which, in its colloquial definition, provides that one drop of Black blood makes a person Black. In more formal, sociological circles, the rule is known as a form of “hypodescent” and its meaning remains basically the same: anyone with a known Black ancestor is considered Black. Over the generations, this rule has not only shaped countless lives, it has created the African-American race as we know it today, and it has defined not just the history of this race but a large part of the history of America.
Race mixing between Whites and Blacks in America is not new. The unique American definition of “Black” has roots that are almost as old as race mixing on this continent. […] The legal treatment of mulattoes as Blacks, with all of the attached legal disabilities, may have begun as early as the seventeenth century. One of the earliest judicial uses of the term “mulatto” to describe a person of mixed Black-White descent, appears in the Virginia case of In Re Mulatto. Although the opinion consists of a single sentence, and we know of no supporting record to illuminate the facts of the case, its logic constructs the American view of racial mixture between Black and White that has endured for over three hundred years.
In re Mulatto in its entirety states: “Mulatto held to be a slave and appeal taken.”Without discussion or debate, the court thus apparently articulated the first judicial expression of the rule of hypodescent. Implicit in its opinion is the finding that the litigant was of both African and European descent, but the court found that the European ancestry made no legally significant difference at all, and the holding is likely to have severed whatever ties this “racial hybrid” had with his European ancestry. In fact, it was the African ancestry that both defined his status and determined his fate.
As racial mixing continued largely unchecked by the laws that purported to prohibit it, the result was children. As intermixture continued through the generations, many children became “light-skinned,” even White-skinned. While in most statutes mulattoes were classified with Blacks, ”logic required … some demarcation between [mulattoes] and white men” in order to establish a clear way of distinguishing someone White from someone who would not be considered White.
Without a bright line to distinguish White from mulatto, the efficient administration of American society, in which substantial legal rights were based on being White, would have been impossible. Guarding the port of entry to White status was essential to the protection of the delicate social order of a racial caste system, and the persistence and extent of illegitimate race mixing made this an issue of both importance and some delicacy.On the one hand, families considered White for generations had to be protected from the social consequences of an unknown dalliance by a distant ancestor. ”To have pushed the definition [of black] any further would have embarrassed too many prominent ’white’ families.
As the court noted in State v. Davis, “[i]t would be dangerous and cruel to subjet to this disqualification [being regarded as someone in the degraded class] persons bearing all the feature of a white on account of some remote admixture of negro blood.” On the other hand, steps had to be taken to curb “[t]he constant tendency of this [mixed-race] class to assimilate to the white, and the desire of elevation, [that] present frequent cases of embarrassment and difficulty.” Finally, maintaining the color line, however ethereal, was important as a matter of social etiquette. As Chief Justice Lumpkin lamented in Bryan v. Walton: “Which one of us has not narrowly escaped petting one of the pretty little mulattoes belonging to our neighbors as one of the family?”
a. Adjudicating Fractions of Blood. Many states had laws that specifically set forth the fraction of Negro blood necessary to make a person Black. Over the years, this fraction ranged from one-quarter to one drop. The concept of “pure blood,” based as it was on pure conjecture, proved difficult both to litigate and adjudicate. Even though fractional definitions of race gave the appearance of judicial objectivity, fairness, and consistency, the rational for the decisions switched fairly quickly from a pseudo-scientific basis to the common social meaning of race.