One-drop rule

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The one-drop rule or the one drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States of America that holds that a person with any trace of sub-Saharan ancestry (however small or invisible) cannot be considered white and so unless said person has an alternative non-white ancestry they can claim, such as Amerindian, Asian, Arab, Australian aboriginal, they must be considered black.


The "rule" was a legal principle, used in some laws in the United States, classifying a person as black if any ancestor was black or partially black. It is defunct in law in the United States and was never codified into federal law. This is sometimes cited as a race denialist argument, supposedly showing that race is arbitrary. Regarding this, see Race: Mixed race groups.

Recently, some individuals and organizations have been argued to support versions of the one-drop rule, since being classified as a black may give an individual various advantages, such as due to pro-black affirmative action laws. Another example is that pro-black organizations (NAACP, Black Lives Matter and so on) may gain various advantages if a larger share of the population in an area is classified as black. This may also be used as arguments against using "multiracial" and similar classifications, argued to counter afrocentric black supremacism. Mixed race individuals (mulattoes) may also be accused of racism against blacks if they do not want to be classified as blacks.[1]

Use of the rule

The 1910–19 decade was the zenith of the Jim Crow era by most measures. Tennessee adopted a one-drop statute in 1910. It was followed by Louisiana the same year, Texas and Arkansas in 1911, Mississippi in 1917, North Carolina in 1923, Virginia in 1924, Alabama and Georgia in 1927, and Oklahoma in 1931. During this same period, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Utah retained their old blood fraction statutes de jure but amended these fractions (one-sixteenth, one-thirtysecond) to be equivalent to one-drop de facto.[2] By 1925, almost every state had a one-drop law on the books, or something equivalent. These were the laws that gave power to bureaucrats like Walter Plecker of Virginia,[3] Naomi Drake of Louisiana,[4] and similar people around the country, who insisted on labeling families of mixed ancestry as Black.

Before 1930, individuals of mixed European and African ancestry had usually been classed as mulattoes, sometimes as black and sometimes as white. The main purpose of the one-drop rule was to prevent interracial relationships and thus keep whites pure. In 1924, Dr. Plecker wrote:

"Two races as materially divergent as the white and negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher. [...] For the purpose of this act, the term 'white person' shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons."

In line with this concept was also the assumption that Blacks would be improved through white intermixture. Plecker had been preceded by Madison Grant who had written in his book The Passing of the Great Race:

"The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew."[5]

In the case of Native American admixture with whites the one-drop rule was extended only as far as those with one-quarter Indian blood due to what was known as the "Pocahontas exception." The "Pocahontas exception" existed because many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Pocahontas (baptism in 1614). To avoid classifying them as non-white, the Virginia General Assembly declared that a person could be considered white long as they had no more than one-sixteenth Indian blood. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling on the case of Loving v. Virginia, invalidated Plecker's Virginia Racial Integrity Act, along with its key component, the one-drop rule, as unconstitutional.

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To be considered black in the United States not even half of one's ancestry must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation's answer to the question 'Who is black?" has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the "one-drop rule," meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person a black. It is also known as the "one black ancestor rule," some courts have called it the "traceable amount rule," and anthropologists call it the "hypo-descent rule," meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation's definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks. [...] We must also pay attention to the terms "mulatto" and "colored." The term "mulatto" was originally used to mean the offspring of a "pure African Negro" and a "pure white." Although the root meaning of mulatto, in Spanish, is "hybrid," "mulatto" came to include the children of unions between whites and so-called "mixed Negroes." For example, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, with slave mothers and white fathers, were referred to as mulattoes. To whatever extent their mothers were part white, these men were more than half white. Douglass was evidently part Indian as well, and he looked it. Washington had reddish hair and gray eyes. At the time of the American Revolution, many of the founding fathers had some very light slaves, including some who appeared to be white. The term "colored" seemed for a time to refer only to mulattoes, especially lighter ones, but later it became a euphemism for darker Negroes, even including unmixed blacks. With widespread racial mixture, "Negro" came to mean any slave or descendant of a slave, no matter how much mixed. Eventually in the United States, the terms mulatto, colored, Negro, black, and African American all came to mean people with any known black African ancestry. Mulattoes are racially mixed, to whatever degree, while the terms black, Negro, African American, and colored include both mulattoes and unmixed blacks. As we shall see, these terms have quite different meanings in other countries. [...] Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other group than American blacks, but apparently the rule is unique in that it is found only in the United States and not in any other nation in the world. In fact, definitions of who is black vary quite sharply from country to country, and for this reason people in other countries often express consternation about our definition. James Baldwin relates a revealing incident that occurred in 1956 at the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists held in Paris. The head of the delegation of writers and artists from the United States was John Davis. The French chairperson introduced Davis and then asked him why he considered himself Negro, since he certainly did not look like one. Baldwin wrote, "He is a Negro, of course, from the remarkable legal point of view which obtains in the United States, but more importantly, as he tried to make clear to his interlocutor, he was a Negro by choice and by depth of involvement--by experience, in fact."[6]

Further reading

  • Michelle Gordon Jackson: Light, Bright and Damn Near White – Black Leaders Created by the One-Drop Rule, 2014


  1. The Tragic Mulatto
  2. Pauli Murray, ed. States’ Laws on Race and Color (Athens, 1997), 428, 173, 443, 37, 237, 330, 463, 22, 39, 358, 77, 150, 164, 207, 254, 263, 459.
  3. For the Plecker story, see J. Douglas Smith, “The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: 'Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro',” Journal of Southern History 68, no. 1 (2002): 65-106
  4. For Drake, see Virginia R. Dominguez, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University, 1986)
  5. Madison Grant, The Passing of The Great Race, 1916
  6. Mixed Race America - Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition