Racial identity and the law: miscegenation and the “one drop rule”

Racial identity and the law: miscegenation and the “one drop rule”

Renegade South: histories of unconventional southerners

Victoria E. Bynum, Emeritus Professor of History (author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies)
Texas State University, San Marcos

The “one drop rule” of race refers to the belief that a mere drop of African ancestry makes one “black”—no matter how “white” one’s appearance. This pseudoscientific concept, still commonly believed throughout the United States and among people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, reinforces the idea that a white person who has even one African ancestor somehow is “passing” for white. However, legal cases that involved race during an era in which being classified as a “Negro” severely circumscribed one’s civil rights reveal that questions about racial identity were anything but black and white.

Historically, one of the many paradoxes of Southern race-based society was the co-existence of the “one drop rule” alongside contradictory legal definitions of whiteness. In Mississippi and North Carolina, for example, a person with less than one-eighth African ancestry was legally defined as white. The legal criteria for determining one’s race sometimes—but certainly not always—prevailed over the one drop rule in cases involving the marital rights of mixed-race people…

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