How the “One Drop Rule” Became a Tool of White Supremacy
Yaba Blay on Historical Definitions of Race
The US Census reveals much about the country’s perspective on race. It counts people according to how the nation defines people, and historically, those people counted as Black have been those people with any known Black ancestry. Blacks are defined by the one-drop rule. No other racial or ethnic group is defined in this way, nor does any other nation rely upon this formula; the one-drop rule is definitively Black and characteristically American. It should make sense then that the origins of the rule are directly linked to the history of Black people in the United States, and as such, our discussion of the one-drop rule begins during the period of colonial enslavement.
Within the context of colonial enslavement, Blackness—prototypical and phenotypical African features such as dark skin, a broad nose, tightly coiled hair—were the undeniable markers of inferiority. These features served to immediately communicate one’s position within the social power structure, and in the context of enslavement, whether one was free or enslaved.
If you were white, you were free; if you were Black, you were enslaved. Simple.
However, this seemingly simple social order soon became complicated by the rampant increase in amalgamation—the mixing of the races. The lines between white and Black, free and enslaved, became more and more blurred. Even though the mixing was extensive and extremely common, from the beginning it was always discouraged. For example, in 1630, only 11 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, “colonist Hugh Davis was sentenced to be soundly whipped ‘before an assembly of negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a negro.’” Any white person, male or female, suspected of interracial sexual contact was publicly punished.
Racial mixing posed a number of potential problems. At a time when Blacks far outnumbered whites, whites were afraid of losing control over the enslaved population.While legally many Mixed-race individuals were considered white in many states at various points of time, socially most whites regarded anyone with any Black ancestry as Black.
But what really lay beneath their physical fears were their psychological ones. In order to maintain white supremacy, whiteness had to remain “pure.” White anxieties about racial mixture were rooted in eugenics and scientific racism, both supposing that the white race was the superior race, that physical and mental traits were tied to heredity, and that racial mixing thus not only lowered human quality but further threatened the survival of the white race. Within this framework, Blackness was considered a contaminant, one poisonous enough to taint and further cripple an entire gene pool. As will become clear, the one-drop rule would be critical not only in the defense of the white race but in the concentration of white power.
Given the shamelessly disproportionate amount of power and privilege assigned to whiteness, the lines between who counted as white and who did not had to be unquestionably clear. Maintaining a firm color line would require the institution of what would later be called “anti-miscegenation laws”—laws that defined marriage (and sometimes sex) between the races as criminal. Because Blacks were already enslaved, in reality these laws reflected an attempt to police the behavior of whites:
In many of the colonies … interracial marriage was formally prohibited; those who engaged in interracial fornication paid a double fine; those who intermarried were banished; those who performed marriages for mixed couples were punished; whites who engaged in interracial marriages were enslaved; offspring of such marriages followed the slave status of the mother if the mother were Black and were enslaved anyway if the mother were white.
The idea that children born to enslaved mothers would take the status of the mother reflected a significant break with traditional English common law that held that children take the status of the father. However, as we will continue to see, laws changed frequently to maintain white supremacy. Essentially, if a white man were to impregnate a Black woman, the law took him off the hook; he did not have to support or even claim that child. At best, if the mother of the child was his property, he gained not a child but additional property and another source of labor and income. Thus, the law inadvertently sanctioned the sexual abuse of enslaved women. In fact, on some plantations, a select number of enslaved women were reserved specifically for breeding with white men since Mixed-race “slaves” brought higher prices at the market. Defining white-descended children born to enslaved Black women as “slaves” suited the need to control the population, increasing the number of exploited laborers while limiting the number of free Blacks. By limiting who had access to privilege, particularly that of freedom, whites were able to further concentrate white power.
The punishment for white women who had consensual sex with Black men was much more severe than the penalties given to white men who raped Black women. The responsibility of maintaining the purity of the white race lay in the hands (and wombs) of its women, the literal bearers of the next generation. White women who had children by Black men were not only disgraces to their race but to their nation. Many were banished from the colony; many others were themselves enslaved. Conveniently, traditional English common law was upheld in these cases, and Black-descended children born to white women took the status of their Black fathers. In both cases, racially mixed persons would be assigned to the status of the lower group, thus the term “hypodescent”—“hypo” meaning under, defective, or inadequate. A white mother could give birth to a Black child, but a Black mother could never give birth to a white one.
Obviously, white/Black sexual liaisons continued, and the Mixed-race population grew rapidly. The general term used during the antebellum period to describe people of mixed racial heritage was “Mulatto.” Taken from the Portuguese and Spanish term mulato meaning “young mule,” the term reflects not only the disdain with which the referents were held but the way in which race was conceptualized at the time. As we know, a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey—a hybrid of two different animals—and as hybrids, they are sterile. To refer to children born of interracial sexual relationships as “Mulattos” pointed to the conviction that whites and Blacks were two distinct beings and the related belief that if they were to mix, their offspring would be sterile and thus useless. True, we know that those of mixed racial heritage were not at all sterile; but this process of naming reflected a projected value system more so than an actual truth. Again, what lay beneath their physical fears were their psychological ones.Creoles functioned as a buffer class that helped whites to maintain their dominant status and keep unmixed Blacks in their place.
What would happen if one’s social status—free or enslaved—were no longer obvious based on physical appearance? What exactly were “Mulattos”? If there were only two racial categories, white and Black, which one did they belong to? By one colonial observation, Virginia was “swarming with Mulattos,” a situation that likely forced the state to quickly put laws into place to address the “problems” it posed. Virginia was the first state to outline a formulaic definition of race in its ban against interracial marriage. In 1705, it defined a “Negro” as the child, the grandchild, or great-grandchild of a “Negro” or anyone who was at a least one-eighth “Negro.” By this definition, “Mulattos” were Black. Other states soon followed. At different times up until the 20th century, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, and South Carolina all relied on a one-eighth rule, while Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas defined anyone with “any blood of the African race in their veins” as Black. While legally many Mixed-race individuals were considered white in many states at various points of time, socially most whites regarded anyone with any Black ancestry as Black. The message was clear: No matter how white you may appear, if there is but one drop of Black blood in your lineage, you will be considered Black and treated accordingly.
The specific case of New Orleans presents a quite different history of racial classification. There, a multi-tiered system developed wherein whites held highest status and Blacks held lowest status, while the gens de couleur libre (free people of color), also known as Creoles of Color and more popularly referred to as Creoles, hovered loosely between the two in an intermediate position, enjoying the privileges of freedom since the beginning of French rule in 1718. The term “Creole,” from the Latin creare, means “to beget” or “create.” Creoles were indeed “created,” the result of generations of inter-mixing between Europeans (French and Spanish), Africans (enslaved and free), and Indigenous peoples. Unlike other regions of the country, in colonial Louisiana, amalgamation was widespread, tolerated, and sometimes encouraged, and thus whites rejected the one drop rule.
Creoles functioned as a buffer class that helped whites to maintain their dominant status and keep unmixed Blacks in their place. White fathers often acknowledged their “Mulatto” children, and many granted their children their freedom. To maintain the wedge created between the groups, laws were set in place to keep them separate. Creoles were prohibited from mingling with the dark-skinned Blacks. Furthermore, under Louisiana law, Creoles were presumed free; Blacks were not. Having received the acknowledgement and favor of whites, Creoles emerged as an elite class, and thus, like whites, Creoles considered themselves superior to Blacks.
Often possessing more white blood than [Negro], and quite often on good terms with and publicly recognized by their white relatives, most members of this third caste in Louisiana were reared to believe that they were a race apart from the [Negroes], who occupied the lowest stratum of society. –Gary B. Mills, The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color
Although Creoles were not given the privileges afforded to whites, they were given many more privileges than were Blacks. For a Creole, then, having white ancestry was socially advantageous. The fact that Creoles were assigned privileges on the sole basis of their white ancestry only helped to further legitimize the superiority of whiteness.
Rather than being defined by the one-drop rule, Creoles were defined by the exact amount of Black ancestry they possessed. In Louisiana, the term “Negro” applied usually to one of full “Negro” blood. A “Negro” and a white produced a “Mulatto.” If a “Mulatto” were to reproduce with a “Negro,” their offspring would be referred to as a Griffe, and if that Griffe were to reproduce with a white, their offspring would be referred to as Sacatra. A “Mulatto” and a white produced a Quadroon or Quateron. A Quadroon and a white produced an Octoroon or Sang-mêlé, and so on and so on. And a person “sufficiently light-skinned to pass for white” was considered passe à blanc. Whereas the term passé á blanc points to how others perceived a particular person, the term blanc forcé was used to refer to someone who was intent on being seen as white “by force.” Interestingly enough, however, when pronounced in New Orleans dialect, the term sounds more like blan fo’cé, and as such, the descriptor could also derive from blanc foncé, which means “dark white” in French.
In recognizing multiple categories of non-whiteness, Louisiana established a distinctive and complex caste system. Just as whites considered themselves superior to Blacks on the basis of skin color, so too did Creoles. Whites approved of and often encouraged Creoles’ erection of and adherence to this “color line of privilege”—“this separation was encouraged by the whites as a means of dividing the Negroes and making it easier to control them. … By law the light-skinned free Negro was barred from mingling with the dark-skinned slave.” Under an 1846 Louisiana law,
a person of color may be descended from Indians on both sides, from a white parent, or mulatto parents in possession of their freedom….the probability that a colored person [is] free [is] so great that he ought not to be deprived of freedom upon mere presumption.
Thus, Creoles were presumed to be free; Blacks were not. Although never explicitly stated, these and similar statutes gave Creoles both social and legal permission to consider themselves a race separate from Blacks, and in many ways, their skin color served as their passport to freedom.
The multi-tiered racial classification system that created the Creole also created an elite class of people, many of whom were as financially secure as whites, if not more so. In New Orleans, Creoles made up a significant portion of the city’s doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and other educated professionals. Some were successful enough to own their own “slaves.” Their very ability to work for wages, operate businesses, and receive inheritances was due to their racial and social approximation to whites. Having a European-like phenotype—light skin, straight or loosely coiled hair, aquiline features, etc.—marked people elsewhere categorized wholly as Black as privileged, with the amount of privilege assigned based on how much white blood the person possessed and/or how much white blood it appeared that the person possessed. Thus, among Creoles themselves, each of these subcategories represented jealous and fiercely guarded distinctions. This caste system would set into motion a history of “bad blood” (no pun intended) between Louisiana’s Creole population and browner- or darker-skinned Blacks based largely on ancestry and appearance.
Recognizing the social power and freedoms established by whites simply on the basis of skin color, many Creoles began to take extreme pride in their own light skin color and often went to great lengths to “maintain the race” by either preserving or lightening the skin color of their descendants. The responsibility of maintaining the race fell on the shoulders (and wombs) of Creole women. Efforts to “improve the race” often involved Creole women engaging in sexual relationships with white men and in turn producing lighter-skinned offspring. At the time of its inception, the French Code Noir dictated that children resulting from French/non-French (read: white/non-white) unions assumed the status of their mothers. However, the French fathers oftentimes freed their Mixed children and their common-law (Black) wives. The privileges associated with white ancestry and skin color thus made “alliances” between Black women and French men both attractive and inevitable. More formally referred to as plaçage (“placement” in French), this system afforded French men “respectable companionship” in a place where there was a shortage of European women, while offering Creole women the opportunity to improve not only their own social standing but that of future generations of their families.
With the option of legal marriage denied them, Creole women within plaçage entered into long-standing formalized relationships with white European men. This practice was so common yet so threatening to the social order that laws were written in an effort to prevent it. In 1908, the Louisiana State Legislature “passed a bill … making concubinage ‘between a person of the Caucasian race and a person of the negro race a felony, fixing the punishment therefore and defining what shall constitute concubinage.’” Because the act stipulated that concubinage between whites and Blacks was against the law, it left the doors open for various interpretations, given Louisiana’s multilevel racial classification system. Most Creoles did not consider themselves Black. Thus, the system of plaçage flourished, in spite of legal sanctions.
Excerpted from One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race by Yaba Blay (Beacon Press, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.