Historical Origins of the One-Drop Racial Rule in the United States
Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies
Volume 1, Issue 1 (2014)
Winthrop D. Jordan (1931-2007), Emeritus Professor of History and African-American Studies
University of Mississippi
Paul Spickard, Professor of History; Professor of Asian American Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara
Winthrop Jordan, one of the most honored of US historians, wrote about racial mixing a generation before there was a field of mixed race studies. At the time of his death, he left an unfinished manuscript: “Historical Origins of the One-Drop Racial Rule in the United States.” For this inaugural issue of the JCMRS, Jordan’s former student Paul Spickard, himself a foundational scholar of multiracial studies from the first wave of scholarship in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has edited Jordan’s final article.
The One-Drop Rule: The US Anomaly and Its Fateful Consequences
Historians and scholars in other disciplines have generated a huge corpus of studies about the concept of race while ignoring, for the most part, one of the most important features of race relations in the United States. In this country, the social standard for individuals is superficially simple: if a person of whatever age or gender is believed to have any African ancestry, that person is regarded as black. Basically, by this social rule, a person was, and is, either black or not. Any person of racially or ethnically mixed descent who has some “Negro blood” has been or still is regarded as “colored,” or “African,” or “Negro,” or “black,” or “Afro-American,” or “African American”—whatever designation has prevailed by convention at the time. This social rule has been easy to overlook because it is so close to home, often in a personal way, and because it involves self-identification as well as identification of others. Almost all people in the United States tend to operate perceptually and conceptually according to this simple social rule concerning race without stopping to question its logic. Why question the way the world works when that way is so obvious? And far from questioning the rule, many Americans seem almost resistant to acknowledging its existence, and some of those who have thought about the rule angrily assign blame to some nefarious group for promoting it.
When it comes to race, Americans see themselves, and many overseas people as well, in a bicolored fashion—either/or—black or white. Surely this is an interesting chromometric assessment of skin complexion. We should ask ourselves why nearly all the people playing on basketball courts are said to be one of the same two colors as piano keys. For one thing, no human being has a complexion that is fully black or completely white. And all these players, whether white or black, have a light and dark side of their hands. In addition, bifurcating these or any people subtly negates the underlying unity of humankind and its common genetic and historical roots.
In the United States some medical geneticists have blithely ignored the one-drop rule while urging genetic profiles of different races as they relate to susceptibility to different diseases. These proposals have been strongly denounced by some geneticists and by scholars in other disciplines who point to the obvious fact that a great many socially defined African Americans have a genetic background that is far less than even fifty percent African. Historians have been less prone to disagreement among themselves, but they have simply been neglectful about asking how and why this social rule developed. The focus in this inquiry is on the social aspects of the rule, and thus the definition of the rule used here is somewhat broader than is necessary when discussing the genetics of its operation.
The term “one-drop rule” has its own rather curious history. It was used repeatedly in scholarly works on race relations more than a generation ago. Today, it can be found in a wide variety of publications that deal with race relations in the United States. Yet the lexical community has been either negligent or resistant about the term, for as of a very few years ago, all the purportedly unabridged dictionaries of the English language and their updated collegiate versions did not include it. These dictionaries have begun to catch up as dictionaries and facsimiles like Wikipedia have become ubiquitous online. Even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which is supposedly based on historical principles, has an online version that now includes the term. The phrase currently appears in many books, magazines, and on the Internet, firmly supported by its conciseness in referring to a powerful social rule…
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