Arguably, one of the most permanent racialized ideas in the history of the United States has been the insistence on human classification. Regardless of its biological and scientific invalidity, the notion of “race” is an endemic feature in social relations and continues to artificially separate individuals who have more in common, racially speaking, than they have differences. Personifying the illogical reality of a racialized social construct is a particular term—the one-drop rule—in which anyone known to have even “one drop” of African ancestry was deemed or classified as African American. The social engineering of this term is inextricably interwoven within the context of the enslavement and segregation eras (1600s-1960s).
However, it was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the “nadir” in segregationist legislation passed, mainly throughout the southern states. Notably, the enactment of these laws was specifically, sometimes indirectly, to enforce the one-drop rule. Previously, no state legislation enforced the segregation of all African Americans, regardless of the amount of mixed heritage from their African, European, and Native American ancestry. However, the “passing” of light-skinned African Americans into the majority white population had become increasingly common and played a role in prompting the legislation.
In particular, Homer Plessy (1862-1925), a man who described himself as seven-eighths white and one-eighth African American, was the person behind a key piece of segregationist policy (Plessy v. Ferguson) that cemented de jure segregation for nearly 6 decades. The Supreme Court decision on May 18, 1896, upheld a doctrine of “separate but equal,” bringing forth the age of official or constitutional segregation: Jim Crow. Two generations later, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling made segregation in the schools unconstitutional, thereby overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
A salient feature of the one-drop rule is the notion that a person has a static social identity, that a person of mixed heritage is “fixed” to the status of the “racial group” with the least social status. Therefore, having a one-sixteenth portion of African heritage could determine one’s status as a designated African American, regardless of a fifteen-sixteenths white ethnic makeup.
Overall, the one-drop rule was a sociopolitical construct that enabled the U.S. dominant culture to limit miscegenation and social integration with those of African American heritage. Not until 1967, with the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling, did the banning of interracial marriage become unconstitutional. However, this ruling did not deny the continued predominance of the one-drop rule, and today it still largely remains the social identifier within the African American experience.
- Christian, Mark. 2000. Multiracial Identity: An International Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s.
- Moran, Rachel F. 2003. Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Murray, Pauli, ed. 1997. States’ Laws on Race and Color. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
- Pascoe, Peggy. 1996. “Miscegenation Law, Court Cases and Ideologies of ‘Race’ in Twentieth Century America.” Journal of American History 83(1):44-69.
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