How Far Have We Really Come from the "One-Drop Rule"?

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Black man, black woman, black baby
White man, white woman, white baby
White man, black woman, black baby
Black man, white woman, black baby.
- Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet

Barack ObamaThere is no doubt that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is historic. But does framing him as America's "first black president" show that we have not come nearly as far as we'd like to think?

The mainstream U.S. news -- and the majority of the American public, whether for or against him -- consider Barack Obama to be the first African American President. While he is certainly a member of the black community (and much more literally African-American due to his father being a Kenyan immigrant), he is also equally part of the white community. His mother was white. The grandmother who helped raise him (and whom he tragically lost to cancer on the eve of his election) was also white. But historically, and apparently to this day, to be black to any degree is to be exclusively black. Is our celebration of Barack Obama as the first black president proof that we haven't moved very far past the "one-drop rule"?

A Drop of Black, and You Never Go Back

The one-drop rule is the perception that any amount of non-white ancestral heritage makes a person non-white. But there is more than one interpretation of the concept. For some, the distinction is based on physical traits. If you appear to have black features, then you are black, whether it is more or less than 50% of your ancestry. Slightly differently, some believe that if there is even the most dilute black blood in a person's make-up, there will be a tell-tale sign of some kind that will prove the mixed heritage -- a birth mark, the shape of the crescent in the nail bed, or others.

But what we are seeing with the advent of Barack Obama as a national figure fits more within yet another third interpretation. Philosophy professor and author Naomi Zack defined it in her 1998 book, Thinking About Race. "One-drop rule: American social and legal custom of classifying anyone with one black ancestor, regardless of how far back, as black." I asked Zack for her comments about Barack Obama. She replied: "Why is someone with an African father and a white mother, who if race were real would be mixed race, considered 'Black?' Why is it not also absurd to refer to that person as 'a multi-racial African American'?"

In 1994, legal scholar Julie C. Lythcott-Haims wrote in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review that the one-drop rule "still exists today; Americans who are part-Black are socially considered Black, and only Black by most Americans. ... The one-drop rule is so ingrained in the American psyche that Blacks and Whites do not think twice about it."

Tiger Woods with his wife, mother, and babyIn 1997, we saw Tiger Woods as a multiracial person being reduced to one facet of his identity. On Oprah Winfrey's show, he was asked if it bothered him to be referred to simply as African-American. He responded, "It does. Growing up, I came up with this name: I'm a 'Cablinasian'" (meaning Caucasian-Black-Indian-Asian). "I'm just who I am," Woods told Winfrey, "whoever you see in front of you." Sportswriter Ralph Riley wrote about Woods' background and the one-drop rule, without naming it. "Tiger's Asian heritage defines him as thoroughly as any other aspect of his makeup, although we tend to throw everyone brown and American with nice lips into the black blender."

It isn't just white culture that follows the one-drop rule, as Tiger Woods experienced in 1997. A May 1997 article in Time magazine looked at the reaction to Woods' statement on Oprah. "Kerboom! a mini-racial fire storm erupted. Woods' remarks infuriated many African Americans who hailed his record-setting triumph at the Masters as a symbol of racial progress but see him as a traitor. To them Woods appeared to be running away from being an African American ... In their rush to judgment, the fearful apparently never stopped to consider that Woods was not turning his back on any part of his identity but instead was embracing every aspect of it."

Fast-forward to November 2006 and in a 2006 Zogby International poll, 55% of whites considered Obama as biracial after being told that Obama's mother was white and his Kenyan father was black. Even more Hispanics -- 61% -- also saw Obama as biracial. But interestingly, 66% of the blacks polled classified Obama as black.

The October 23, 2006, cover story in Time magazine shows that we still have a hard time letting people of mixed racial backgrounds "embrace every aspect" of being "just who I am." In the story, titled "Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President," reporter Joe Klein compared Obama to Colin Powell, and employed the one-drop assumption: "Powell and Obama have another thing in common: they are black people who -- like Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan -- seem to have an iconic power over the American imagination because they transcend racial stereotypes." Although Obama and Woods are both multiracial, Klein referred to them solely as black and even as "iconic" African-Americans.

What Race Is, and Isn't

Historically, race has been treated as a natural category for classifying human beings. The assumption that people can be grouped into distinct races has political overtones and motives. Activities such as slavery, domination, and oppression have been justified in large part by claims that those who dominate are inherently different (and superior) to those they dominate. Modern science, however, has shown that this system for classifying people has little if any basis in biology or genetics.

According to the current position on race of the American Anthropological Association, drafted in 1998, "The concept of race is a social and cultural construction... Race simply cannot be tested or proven scientifically ... It is clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. The concept of 'race' has no validity ... in the human species." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, race is "self-identification by people according to the race or races with which they most closely identify. These categories are sociopolitical constructs and should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature. Furthermore, the race categories include both racial and national-origin groups." When speaking of human genetic variations, scientists today study "populations" rather than "races," a more precise term that avoids the misleading assumption that superficial characteristics such as skin color group automatically with other characteristics such as intelligence or character. In everyday life, however, "race" is still the most commonly used term and the most widely accepted concept.

Barack Obama's life experience makes him a particularly interesting case study in the problems inherent in trying to classify people by race. Obama is the son of a Kenyan man who came to study in the U.S. He was born and raised by his white maternal family in multiracial, multiethnic Hawai'i, and spent a portion of his young life living in Indonesia. He is "black" in the sense that he has an African father, but his experience growing up is quite different from that of a "typical" African American. Of course, the idea that there is a "typical" African American experience is itself rather suspect. Generations have passed since the first Africans arrived on American shores, and many African Americans have a variety of non-African ancestors with Native American, Caucasian or other roots. Ironically, therefore, Obama's mixed ancestry may be the most "typical" characteristic he shares with other African Americans.

We're Not There Yet

Obama and his mother, half-sister, and maternal grandfatherEven when Obama's mixed racial background is mentioned, the one-drop assumptions and default terms come into play. In a November 8, 2008 article titled "'Mutts Like Me' -- Obama Shows Ease Discussing Race," writer Alan Fram focuses on a comment that the president-elect made about what type of puppy his girls would bring to the White House with them. "Obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me," Obama said. Fram seems to be getting to the heart of the matter, saying "The message seemed clear -- here is a president who will be quite at ease discussing race, a complex issue as unresolved as it is uncomfortable for many to talk about openly. And at a time when whites in the country are not many years from becoming the minority." However, old habits die hard. Fram also says, "By now, almost everyone knows that Obama's mother was white and father was black, putting him on track to become the nation's first African-American president."

Should embracing the multiracial background of people like Barack Obama or Tiger Woods take away from the pride and sense of accomplishment that different communities take in his achievements? Is it really less of a victory for blacks if Obama's mixed race is acknowledged and celebrated? In a November 10, 2008, article for titled "Our Biracial President," James Hannaham wrote, "Obama's biracial. ... This is not to say that he hasn't received some of the same treatment as black Americans, or that he is not welcome among them, or that people should denigrate his need to make his background understandable to people who think that 'biracial' means a type of airplane. It suggests something far less divisive. It means that black and white people (not to mention other ethnicities chained to the binary idiocy of American race relations) can share his victory equally."

Mildred and Richard Loving's case led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down laws against interracial marriagesIn 1967, there were still sixteen U.S. states that had laws on the books banning interracial marriage. That isn't a typo -- 1967. It was in that year that the US. Supreme Court unanimously struck down laws banning interracial marriages with these words: "The freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides within the individual and cannot be infringed on by the State." Barack Obama's parents met, married, and gave birth to him in Hawai'i in the early 1960s. It is a matter of chance that they were not in one of the states where interracial marriage and sex was illegal. In addition, the 2000 U.S. census was the first one in which respondents could choose to identify themselves as belonging to more than a single race. Given that recent history, perhaps we could all celebrate how far we have come by electing a biracial President.

Judith Siers-Poisson is the Associate Director of the Center for Media and Democracy (


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I agree, to a point

Belinda, I certainly agree with the overall thrust of your statement about the ugly history of racial discrimination in the United States, which effectively pushed people with darker skins -- even if their ancestry was only part African -- into being considered "black." However, it's not quite true to say, "The only community to love and nurture dark-skinned people were dark-skinned people. The only community to support, educate and encourage dark-skinned people were dark-skinned people." I think Obama's own personal history suggests otherwise. In fact, his light-skinned mother and grandparents did "love, nurture, support, educate and encourage" Obama, who was a dark-skinned person. Moreover, Obama's book, Memories of My Father, describes his childhood in Hawai'i as a period when he rarely experienced racial discrimination. Probably he was fortunate to live in one of the few U.S. state where non-Hispanic whites do not form a majority, and which has a large percentage of persons of mixed race. (He tells a story in the book of of being shocked at age 9 of seeing a photo in a magazine of a black man whose skin had been damaged with he received a chemical treatment to lighten his complexion. It was at that moment, he says, that he discovered discrimination existed.)

I'm sure we'll all be discussing for quite some time the significance of Obama's election to our understanding of what race means in America. Hopefully that discussion will be civil and uplifting. Already I think the story of his life -- even before the new chapter that is now unfolding with his election to the presidency -- tells us that the story of race in this country is not as "black and white" as some have imagined it to be.

Nice article.

But one question -- why do you write "Black" with a capital B but "white" with a small w? Does that reflect a policy of not-separate-but-unequal? ;-)

duly noted, and corrected

That's something I went back and forth with when I wrote it, and was under the assumption that Black was capitalized and white is not. But I looked into it a little more and changed it.

Then there's the other extreme --

-- from "one drop = black," namely trying to account for every drop and assigning a classification to every possible combination, as in apartheid-era South Africa. I remember reading a story in the L.A. Times, sometime around 1979 or 1980, about all the official classifications for different mixes, with people petitioning the government and submitting to examinations to get their classification change, and the statistics of people granted changes from which category to which. It seems incredible now.

I also remember my own '40s and '50s childhood during which the only black people I ever saw were maids, and the word "black" was considered just as bad as the N-word. I'm very glad I've lived to see some change from that.

Once again, nice article.