One Drop Rule

The one drop rule was a social construction that emerged discursively in US history. The language was first used by the government in the Fourteenth Census in 1920 when the color line was redefined by the Census Bureau. Instead of using the category “mulattoes,” the Bureau adopted the one drop rule. According to it, ”the term ‘white’ as used in the census report refers to persons understood to be pure blooded whites. A person of mixed blood is classified according to the nonwhite racial strain.” Thus, ”a person of mixed white … and Negro … is classified as … a Negro … regardless of the amount of white blood” (Bureau of the Census 1923). By 1924 the term one drop rule was also being used in state legislation. For example, in 1924, a Virginia Act for ”Preservation of Racial Integrity” defined a white person as someone with ”no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian” (Hickman 1967). And the Virginia legislature in 1930 defined as colored any one ”in whom there is ascertainable any negro blood” (Hickman 1967).

The one drop rule became pervasive and courts ruled on it as a principle of law, particularly in the confiscation of property, or in such codified  exclusions as  denying legal redress to persons of color. The history of the one drop rule is marked by two major interventions by the powerful in jurisprudential thinking: (1) it was necessary to transform the way blacks were socially identified from skin color to blood content; (2) it was necessary to change the rule of descent from father to child to from mother to child. Accomplishing these two adjustments in the social order allowed white males to benefit from the eventual enactment of the one drop rule. White males benefited most from the mulatto practice leading to the enactment of the rule because it protected them from any responsibility for supporting their children by black women slaves. In fact, the children became property and the slave holders could count them as capital value.

Therefore, the birth of mulattoes provided an economic advantage to both the father, because he did not have to care for his black children, and the mother’s slaveholder, because he acquired another slave with a birth to a mulatto. And of course, this whole system encouraged the psychological and physical degradation of the mulatta, not to mention the degradation that was afforded her children for their ”condition.” Initially the practice and jurisprudence of deter mining blackness was a matter of observation and not blood content. The goal of creating the mulatto category and the rise of miscegenation law was, as noted black historian Carter G. Woodson remarked, ”to debase to a still lower status the offspring of blacks” and to finally leave women of color without protection against white males (Woodson 1925: xv).

In her distinguished study of blacks and the law, Helen Catterall observes that by 1667 in Virginia, ”baptism ceased to be the test of freedom and color became the ‘sign’ of slavery: black or graduated shades thereof. A negro was presumed to be a slave” (Catterall 1968: 57). By the founding of the US, the father of American psychiatry, Dr. Benjamin Rush, had discovered a ”cure” for blackness. His therapy was totally concerned with changing the ”awful” skin color of blacks through methods like bloodletting and purging through enemas. To Rush, the problem of skin color was in part a problem of blood. He argued that non white skin color was one form of leprosy and the bacterium had obviously contaminated the blood: ”Depletion, whether by bleeding, purging, or abstinence, has been often observed to lessen the black color of negroes” (Rush 1799: 295).

The end of the eighteenth century brought a new discourse that focused on blood and genealogy to explain blackness and this influenced the rise of the eventual one drop rule. For example, in 1785, Virginia legally defined a Negro as an individual with a black parent or grandparent (Davis 1991). Prior to 1785, a mulatto could own up to one half ”African blood.” With the 1785 law’s enactment, anyone having one quarter or more of African blood would be considered a Negro and presumed to be a slave.

A statute passed by the Virginia legislature in 1662, 43 years after the first Africans arrived, shows the early importance of drawing broad boundaries around the Negro race. Undoubtedly in recognition of the fact that most inter racial fornication occurred between white men and black women, the law provided: ”children got by an Englishman upon a negro woman … shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother” (Finkelman 1986: 16). This was a major change in traditional English common law, which held that children follow patriarchal descent (Higginbotham 1978: 44, 194).

This precedence in law had widespread influence in the demarcation of blackness. It provided that children born of a black mother and white father would follow the common law applicable to farm animals (Higginbotham 1978). The law was very explicit about this in its tradition; animals belonged to the owner of the mother of the offspring. In fact, the imagery may have deeper expression in language since the root of the word mulatto derives from the Spanish mulatto, the diminutive of mulo, which means a mule. Here then, through law, we find a key element in the construction of the tradition of the so called black matriarchy.

The function of the one drop rule was the subjugation of those who came to be defined as black. It increased the number of individuals who would be placed in that category. It developed over a long history of customs, folkways, mores, norms, and juridical developments. Its discursive development was linked to debates about skin color and rights associated with inheritance. But use of the concept of race functioned to subjugate those who fell under its categorization. This led W. E. B. Du Bois (1986 [1897]) to opine that race ”is a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.” However, as English professor Teresa Zackodnik points out, ”For Du Bois, blood becomes a metaphor for political commitment, not the carrier of inherent racial traits; racial groups are not natural formations along heritable blood lines but a group of individuals sharing certain loyalties and a degree of common experience while pursuing shared economic, political, and philosophical goals” (2004: 28).


  1. Bureau of the Census (1923) Fourteenth Census of the United States: 1920. US Department of Com­merce, Washington, DC.
  2. Catterall, H. T. (Ed.) (1968) Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro. 1. Irish University Press, Shannon.
  3. Davis, F. J. (1991) Who is Black? One Nation’s Deftnition. Pennsylvania State University Press, Uni­versity Park.
  4. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1986 [1897]) The Conservation of Races. In: Huggins, N. (Ed.), E. B. Du Bois: Writings. Library  of  America,  New York,pp. 815 26.
  5. Finkelman, P. (1986) The Law of Freedom and Bondage: A Casebook. Oceana Publications, New York.
  6. Hickman, C. B. (1967) The Devil and the One Drop Rule: Racial Categories, African Americans, and the US Census. Michigan Law Review 95(5): 1166 266.
  7. Higginbotham, A. L. (1978) In the Matter of Color, Race, and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Oxford University Press, New York.
  8. Rush, B. (1799) Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition that the Black Color (as it is called) of the Negroes is Derived from the Leprosy. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 4: 289 97.
  9. Woodson, C. G. (1925) Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830. Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Washington, DC.
  10. Zackodnik, T. C. (2004) The Mulatta and the Politics of Race. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.

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