One-drop theory

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The one-drop theory (or one-drop rule) is the colloquial term for the standard, found throughout the USA, that holds that a person with even one drop of non-white ancestry should be classified as "colored", especially for the purposes of laws forbidding inter-racial marriage. This standard has also been applied to people with Native American ancestry.

The theory originally had its basis in the false belief that individuals of different "races" also had different blood types by default. Additionally, the rule served to both draft individuals of partial African-American descent into the South's system of slavery and to act as a form of caste demotion, mandating that mixed-raced individuals deny a portion of their heritage. In essence, the ideology behind the theory holds that black ancestry is a taint.

One-drop theory is still influential in the USA - by de facto American color standards, a multiracial person with black heritage is considered black unless they declare themselves otherwise, identifying instead as white, mixed-race or Native American, for example (different color standards can be seen in countries such as Brazil). These standards are widely rejected in the Latino community in the USA, the majority of which is mixed race.

The theory was codified in law in some states, although the expression colored was often used, at least acknowledging the presence of non-black ancestry. For example, as cited in the Loving v. Virginia decision[1] (, Virginia law (Racial Integrity Act of 1924) held that for the purposes of laws forbidding inter-racial marriage, "Every person in whom there is ascertainable any Negro blood shall be deemed and taken to be a colored person, and every person not a colored person having one fourth or more of American Indian blood shall be deemed an American Indian; except that members of Indian tribes existing in this Commonwealth having one fourth or more of Indian blood and less than one sixteenth of Negro blood shall be deemed tribal Indians."


Alternatives to the one-drop theory

As an alternative to this theory, various terms were coined during the 19th century to denote persons with varying degrees of African ancestry; these terms included mulatto for one-half black, quadroon for one-quarter black, octoroon for one-eighth black, and quintroon (or much less commonly, hexadecaroon) for one-sixteenth black. Other such terms include sambo, metif, mustee and sang-mele. These terms are rarely used today.

Black Americans also use many slang terms to describe the varying shades of skin tone found among them, including chocolate for a dark-skinned African-American and high yella for a light-skinned one. It should be noted, however, that skin-colour is a poor indicator of racial ancestry.


While various forms of this approach to race have likely existed since "race" became a prominent way of thinking about human variations, the "one-drop theory" formally came out of the context of the early 20th century United States. In the racial theory published in the period before World War I, there was more concern with the idea of differentiating different European groups than there was in concern with "hybridity" or "admixture" between "White" and "Black" groups. Prominent American socialite and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant's popular work on race, The Passing of the Great Race (1916) focused on the differences between the peoples of Europe, in part because his interests were in European immigration restriction. At the time, Grant felt that the "Negro question" was confined primarily to the South, and that "physical repulsion" alone would keep Blacks and Whites from mating. Grant's theories, while particular to himself, are seen by historians as representative of prewar concerns with Jews, Irish, and Eastern-Europeans. Even in this, however, he had already developed a popular "one-drop rule":

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.

After World War I, though, social conditions led to a change in dominant racial theories. Notions of "bi-racialism" — that the world was divided simply into categories of "White" and "Black" — became especially popular, both with elements advocating white supremacy (such as Grant's protege, Lothrop Stoddard) and prominent African-American writers advocating Black solidarity (such as W.E.B. Du Bois). With the onset of the Great Migration, large numbers of Southern African-Americans were moving into the North, radically shifting the Northern concerns with race. It was out of this context that Grant became involved in passing anti-miscegenation legislation in the South, and working in Virginia along with the eugenicist Walter Ashby Plecker to codify the "one-drop rule" into their famous law.

The field of population genetics has, since at least the 1930s (in response to the racial ideologies trumped by Nazi Germany) rejected any notion of the "one-drop rule", noting time and time again that genetically speaking there is no scientific way to consider the multitudes of genes which overlap in all populations as being confined to the rigid typological descriptions required by a "drop" system. Modern populations of all types vary only in their relative frequencies of different alleles, and all modern humans share a most recent common ancestor from within the last several thousand years. A "drop" of ancestry thus fails to describe something found in the natural world which might distinguish people. As such, the "one-drop rule" has been seen as a way to codify social prejudices into legal and pseudo-biological strictures, rather than an expression of any scientific fact.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Moran, Rachel F., Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race & Romance, University of Chicago Press, May 2003. ISBN 0226536637
  • Davies, James F., Who is Black?: One Nation's Definition, Penn State University Press, November 2001. ISBN 0271021721
  • Guterl, Matthew Press, The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

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