The One Drop Rule: R.I.P.

The One Drop Rule:

by M. Royce Van Tassell
August/September 2000

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution requires that the government conduct an “enumeration” of all persons “among the several States” in the Union. For the twenty-second time in American history, the U.S. Census Bureau is currently performing this decennial ritual.

Conducting the Census has always been, and will always be a political issue. Its results determine which states gain congressional seats, and which states lose them. Just as important, its results determine the party alignment of the House of Representatives, and all state legislative houses.

Nevertheless, the political fight surrounding Census 2000 has been, and will continue to be, more divisive than any other in recent memory.. The most divisive controversy centers on the role of race. Beginning in 1993, representatives of America’s multiracial population began lobbying for changes in the racial categories available for Census 2000. Rather than being forced to choose one parent over another, or to become a demeaning “Other,” these activists proposed a “Multiracial” box.

While superficially a simple acknowledgement that many Americans did not fit into the Census Bureau’s five standard racial categories, the multiracial box represented a huge political threat to the minority rights establishment. They had benefited greatly from the government’s devotion to the One Drop rule. According to this rule, anyone with even one drop of black blood, or one black ancestor, is black. These groups base their political power on a claim to represent millions of minorities in America. The One Drop rule guarantees that they retain a large constituent base. The multiracial box threatened to dilute their constituent base. People who would otherwise identify themselves as a member of a traditional minority are those most likely to choose the multiracial box.

The multiracial box presented an especially enticing option for black Americans, because virtually every American black has at least one non-black ancestor. As early as 1918, the Census Bureau estimated that at least three-fourths of American blacks were racially mixed. With the end of legal prohibitions against interracial marriages in 1967, the likelihood of any “pure” blacks has dropped to virtually nil.

In a series of hearings in 1993, and again in 1997, the minority rights’ establishment prevented the addition of a multiracial box. Instead, they convinced the Clinton administration to allow people to select many racial boxes as they wanted. In acceding to the minority rights establishment, the Clinton administration guaranteed that the “One Drop” rule for racial classification would prevail.

In allowing every person to check as many categories as they want, the Census Bureau created 63 racial categories. Many of these racial categories would have very few members, but the Census Bureau had committed to count them.

Putting people into more rather than fewer boxes appears to move away from America’s historic devotion to the One Drop rule. Checking multiple boxes does allow people define their racial identity with greater precision. However, taking a snapshot of America pales in importance to the role that the Census data plays in enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws.

The nation’s civil rights laws were forged in an era when the only relevant racial categories were black and white. Asians, Native Americans and certainly multiracial Americans simply had no relevance to their debate. While the federal government has been able to accommodate the change from two to five racial categories, upping that number to sixty-three would gut them. It would simply be impossible to determine, for example, whether a federal contractor had conducted sufficient outreach to minority contractors. For enforcement purposes, the federal enforcement agencies would have to collapse many of these categories.

Predictably, there was a lot of hand-wringing over how to avoid collapsing the sixty-three categories into a more manageable five when enforcing the civil rights laws. They did not want to admit that allowing people to check as many boxes as they pleased was really a sham. On March 9 of this year, however, the Clinton administration admitted that it would in fact collapse all but the largest categories.

Not only will the One Drop rule apply to the descendants of slaves, but to every other minority group with enough political clout to get their own racial box. Enforcement agencies will reclassify any person who selects white and some minority group (black, Asian, Native American, or Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander) as a member of the minority group..

It is long past time to put an end to America’s legacy of racial classification. The die has been cast for Census 2000, but the debate is far from over. The outrage that Americans have expressed in being forcibly categorized should serve notice to the racial bean counters that this will not be part of the next Census count. The One Drop rule is on its last breath. May it rest in peace.

M. Royce Van Tassell is Director of Research for the American Civil Rights Institute.

Also by M. Royce Van Tassell

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