Introduction to the U.S. One-Drop Rule (C14)

The one-drop rule is a U.S. folkloric tradition that someone of European appearance who rejects an African-American self-identity is “really Black,” like it or not, due to having “one drop” of known African ancestry, no matter how ancient.

The obsolescent notion labels such people as merely “passing for White.” Recent examples are actors Peter Ustinov and Heather Locklear. Historical examples are Alexander Pushkin and John James Audubon.

Americans with distant but known African ancestry are often reported as “African American” by press and public despite their European appearance, despite their freely chosen non-Black self-identity. This labeling is the “one-drop rule.”

This class covers seven points: (1) The one-drop rule reflects a conflict between two folkloric traditions. (2) It appears only in the United States. (3) It applies only to the Black/White color line. (4) It had no connection with slavery. (5) Black Americans, not White ones, have enforced the one-drop rule for the past two centuries. (6) Racial classification court cases today ignore it. (7) Since 1990, intermarried parents may be moving away from the tradition.

Manifestation of Conflict Between Two Myths

The one-drop rule is a manifestation of the conflict between the U.S. myth that “race” is determined by appearance (skin tone, hair texture, facial features) and the contradictory but equally strongly held myth that “race” is determined by ancestry. (“Myth” in this context simply denotes a mandatory belief taught to young Americans in order to exemplify social standards that they will be expected to follow in adulthood.)

On the one hand, most Americans agree that someone who looks Black is Black, even if neither parent self-identified as African American (U.S. President Obama, for instance).

But most Americans also agree that someone born into the African-American community who looks White and self-identifies as White is also secretly Black (Carol Channing’s father, for instance). Such imposed labeling exemplifies the one-drop rule.

Unique to the United States

It is hard for residents of other countries to grasp that the notion of invisible Blackness is widely accepted, and often legally enforced, in the United States today.

To most people around the world, the claim that someone “looks White but is really Black” is as nonsensical as saying that someone “looks tall but is really short, just passing as tall” or “looks fat but is really thin, just passing for fat.” In every other nation on earth, if you look White and consider yourself White, then you are White.

Unique to the Black/White U.S. Dichotomy

An American may legally claim to be 1/4 Cherokee, 1/4 Irish, or 1/4 Russian and still choose some other ethnic self-identity (German, say). But an American who admits to being 1/4 Black is not given such a choice. Unlike every other U.S. ethnicity, you cannot legally choose to be partly African-American. The one-drop rule is enforced at the highest levels of the U.S. federal government.

If you check off more than one “race” box in the U.S. census and one of the boxes was “Black” then you are classified as solely Black, no matter how many other boxes you checked. (For the regulations, see: here or here.)

Had Nothing to do With Slavery

Like most U.S. myths regarding that nation’s unique endogamous color line, folkloric tradition says that it has something to do with slavery. U.S. popular culture as well as academia teach Americans to blame long-dead slavery for their current polity. (This resembles the way that Americans blame slavery for their racialism and their endogamous color line, although slavery was ubiquitous while the latter phenomena remain unique to the United States.)

The actual legal connection between slavery and physical appearance was precisely the reverse. A person of any visible European ancestry was presumed to be free.

The court cases Gobu v. Gobu (1802 NC), Hudgins v. Wrights (1806 VA), and Adelle v. Beauregard (1810 LA) established the U.S. caselaw that if you had any discernible European ancestry, the burden was on the alleged slave owner to prove that you were legally a slave through matrilineal descent. This law was then followed in hundreds of court cases without exception until U.S. slavery was ended by the 13th Amendment.

Instead, historical court records show that the one-drop rule first appeared in the free states of the Ohio valley in the 1830s, was not accepted in the south until long after the Civil war, became statutory in 1910, and did not spread nationwide until the 1920s.

Historically Enforced More by Blacks Than by Whites

Except for one 50-year period of U.S. history, the one-drop rule has been believed more strongly and enforced more harshly by African-American political leaders than by White Americans.

The exceptional period was the Jim Crow era of state-sponsored terrorism against its African-American citizens. During the Jim Crow period, which ended around 1965, the one-drop rule kept compassionate White families in line by legally exiling to Blackness any who defended Blacks against the terror. During this period, the one-drop rule was never legally applied in court to any family who self-identified as Black. It was used only against Whites.

In all other periods, from the 1830s to today, the one-drop rule was an instrument of intra-ethnic coercion by African-American political leaders. It is still used thus today. It is used to punish those born into the African American community who wish to self-identify as something other than “Black” in adulthood. It accuses them of being “sell-outs” and “race traitors.”

U.S. Law Courts Today Ignore the One-Drop Rule

Since colonial times, about 300 court cases have been held so far to decide someone’s “racial” classification. Such hearings and trials continue today.

Before the 1955-65 civil rights movement, such trials were held to decide if you could: incur slavery’s burden of proof, marry, testify, attend school, vote, inherit, commit slander, carry a weapon, or incur carrier liability.

Nowadays, the most frequent reason is to determine entitlement (affirmative action, workplace discrimination, residential discrimination, Batson hearings).

Throughout the 19th century courts used three rules to determine “race”: appearance (whether you looked Black), blood fraction (how many Black grandparents you had), and association (which community accepted you).

Courts then used the one-drop rule from the start of the Jim Crow era to the mid 1980?s. But the one-drop rule has fallen out of fashion in court within the past 20 years or so.

Oddly, most law scholars agree that the ODR is currently enforced today. This is a partial list of academics who have published this opinion in recent scholarly peer-reviewed journals. They are mistaken.

In fact, the most recent “racial” classification case where the ODR was upheld as the determining factor was the 1986 Susie Phipps case in Louisiana.

She was a woman who had considered herself White all her life (as did her husband, relatives, and friends). But when she checked off “White” on a passport application, the clerk rejected it, saying that she looked like she had a touch of Black blood. She sued and lost. She appealed and lost again. According to Louisiana’s ODR law, the only defense against an accusation of Black blood was to show that you had no African ancestry–forever.

This is impossible, given that you had a thousand ancestors 10 generations ago (around 1800) and a million ancestors 20 generations ago (1600). She went to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost once and for all. “Racial” classification was not a federal issue.

Since 1986, every time that the ODR has been argued in court, it has backfired. Instead, courts today rely on acceptance by the leaders of the African-American ethno-political community. If you are accepted by local Black leaders, then you are legally Black, no matter what you look like, no matter your documented ancestry, no matter your DNA, no matter your own choice of self-identity. On the other hand, if you are rejected by local Black leaders, then you are not legally Black, no matter what you look like, no matter your documented ancestry, no matter your DNA, no matter your own choice of self-identity.

Here are three cases showing how “racial” classification works today: Mostafa Hefny, Mary Christine Walker, and twin brothers Phillip and Paul Malone.

Mostafa Hefny: businessman in Detroit, immigrant from Africa (Egypt), working towards naturalization as U.S. citizen. Heard that the SBA was granting loans to Black-owned businesses. Applied. Was turned down on the grounds that he was not “Black.”

The Small Business Admninistration’s explanation, according to the Detroit office, is that “Black” loans are intended only for those whose ancestors suffered under slavery and Jim Crow. That he cannot simply “waltz in from Africa” and claim to be Black.

Hefny demanded a formal hearing and lost. The excuse changed however. The court ruled that federal regulations forbid immigrants from North Africa nations (including Egypt) from calling themselves “black,” no matter what they look like.

These are the regulations. They were interpreted, in Hefny’s case, as accepting as Black anyone of sub-Saharan phenotype from France or Germany, say, but insisting that if you are from North Africa, then you are White by definition and your physical appearance is irrelevant.

Obviously this makes no sense at all. So one must read the testimony presented at Hefny’s hearing to learn what the real problem was with his application.

A parade of witnesses from Detroit’s African-American community had testified that he lived in a White suburb, was a member of White social clubs, went to a White church, and sent his kids to a White school. He had no contact with the A-A community. The hearing judge essentially ruled that “racial” membership comes down to membership in a community, and that mere physical traits are not decisive.

In 1988, 39-year-old Mary Christine Walker, a Denver schoolteacher with fair complexion, green eyes, and light brown hair claimed on a job application to be Black. Her prospective employer obtained Ms. Walker’s birth certificate, found her listed there as “White,” and accused her of “lying to take advantage of minority-hiring policies.” Walker promptly filed suit in State District Court.

Walker was born a White child into a White family but in adolescence found herself more at home among African Americans. She joined a Black church and Black social clubs; her friends and boyfriends were Black. She claimed to be Black, despite her looks. She sued and won. The school board appealed and she won again, this time with increased damages levied against the school.

The Colorado Supreme Court was apparently persuaded by the large number of influential Black leaders (politicians, ministers, etc.), who came to testify that Mary was truly a member of the African-American community. On September 6, 1989, Judge John Brooks Jr. also ordered the state Department of Vital Statistics to issue the woman a new birth certificate.

The case of the Malones of Boston went the other way. Twin brothers Phillip and Paul Malone applied to become Boston firefighters in 1975 but were rejected due to low civil service test scores. After the city instituted an affirmative action program that added test points for Blacks, the Malone brothers claimed that their mother suddenly revealed that a great-grandmother was Black.

They thereupon re-applied as Blacks in 1977 and successfully completed the exam due to the extra points that they received for their newly discovered Blackness. For ten years, they led successful careers and their names were submitted to the Boston Fire Commission for promotion to lieutenants in 1987. Both men passed the qualifying exams with exceptional scores (without affirmative action points).

Then, a fire commissioner who had been reviewing promotion paperwork observed the Malones and accused the brothers of “racial” fraud. The accusation sparked a political firestorm.

One minority leader claimed that as many as 60 of Boston’s 351 Black and 51 Hispanic firefighters were actually lying Whites. Another complained that the authorities had “looked the other way” for ten years. ”If a black person came waltzing into the fire department in the ’70s and it was in his interest to claim he was white, I have no doubt the Boston Fire Department would say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not white.’ [But] When a white person said he is black, they look the other way.”

Stung by the attacks, Boston’s enraged Mayor Flynn ordered investigations into all city departments-fire, police, schools-to root out other Whites who may have fraudulently claimed minority status. A frenzy of bureaucratic evil-seeking ensued. The fire department’s investigation turned up eleven Spanish-surnamed individuals who were accused of not being “racially” Hispanic enough. Seven were exonerated; two resigned under pressure; the other two remained under investigation until the firestorm dwindled away. Two departments-Police and Schools-refused to participate in the widening hunt for “racial” frauds.

The following year, a twenty-three-page ruling by Justice Herbert Wilkins of the state Supreme Judicial Court convicted the Malones of fraud and upheld their expulsion. His decision referred to the position taken by the Black political leadership. Had the Black community supported the Malone brothers (and presumably the disgraced Hispanic firefighters as well), they would have been allowed to keep their jobs.

In the Hefny case a person of totally African genetic ancestry was ruled to be White. In the Walker case, a person of totally European genetic ancestry was ruled to be Black. In the Malones’ case their genetic ancestry remains unknown because it was deemed irrelevant. Since 1986, whenever “racial” classification has been litigated, courts have seen “racial” classification as membership in a civic community, an issue to be determined by that community’s leaders.

Since 1990, Intermarried Parents May be Moving Away From the Tradition

What does the future hold in store for the one-drop rule? One way of measuring the tenacity of the one-drop-rule is by examining how Black/White intermarried parents identify their children on the census “race” question. If intermarried parents accept the legitimacy of African-American ethnic self-identity while simultaneously rejecting the one-drop rule, you would expect half of their children to be identified as White and half as Black (recall 1/4-1/2-1/4 from the session on the heredity of “racial” traits).

In fact, children of intermarried parents have been more often identified as Black than as White since 1880. This shows that the one-drop rule has been accepted for many decades.

More, the fraction of such children labeled as unmixed White has fallen steadily from 50 percent in 1940 to 13 percent in 2000. This suggests that the one-drop rule is growing ever-stronger today among Black/White interracial parents.

On the other hand, the fraction of such children labeled as unmixed Black has also dropped abruptly from 62 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2000.

How can the fraction of White-labeled children and that of Black-labeled children have both fallen since 1990? Growing numbers of interracially married parents are rejecting the idea of having only two choices.

This chart shows, for each census decade since 1960, the percentage of children whose parents rejected a binary choice, either writing in “multiracial,” “biracial,” “none-of-the-above,” or by checking multiple boxes.

In 1960, parents were not allowed to check off “other,” nor to write something in. They had to pick one and only one of the given choices.

In 1970, for the first time, they were allowed to choose “other.” In that census, four percent of first-generation biracial children were reported as neither Black nor White.

In 1980, this number had grown to eight percent, and many parents checked both boxes, despite this being explicitly forbidden by the instructions. By 1990, the number who rejected choosing between Black and White had grown to thirteen percent.

In 2000, for the first time, parents were allowed to check multiple boxes, and millions of parents jumped at the opportunity. In this census, well over half (56 percent) of first-generation biracial children were coded as belonging simultaneously to both “races.”


Since 1986, U.S. courts have seen “racial” classification as membership in a civic community, an issue to be determined by that community’s leaders.

As shown in session C6B, “Introduction to the Color Line – Part 2,” the impact of racialism on U.S. society is worsening, especially in the sense of socio-economic class. The net-worth gap between White and Black Americans continues widening. On the other hand, judging by how parents answer the census “race” question about their children, the notion that if you have even the slightest African ancestry, you must be Black and nothing more, seems to be losing its grip on the American mind.

For the detailed text of this topic, complete with footnoted references, citations, and all the peer-reviewed material, visit Features of Today’s One-Drop Rule.

Click here for an animated YouTube version of this topic, part 1.

Click here for an animated YouTube version of this topic, part 2.

Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

Comments are closed.