Hypodescent versus the One-Drop Rule
People often use the two above terms interchangeably. Indeed, the late anthropologist Marvin Harris, who coined “hypodescent,” is said to have cited the “one-drop rule” as an example of hypodescent taken to its irrational limit. Nevertheless, two different and separate myths lurk inside these terms. We need not distinguish between them in ordinary conversation. But if we want to illuminate events that happened before we were born, then separating them in our minds is key. Understanding their difference is essential to understanding the past.
The first myth is the folkloric belief that someone of barely noticeable African phenotype is still visibly Black, even though most of their ancestry is European. The second is the notion that someone of completely European appearance and parentage is invisibly Black due to a distant trace of African ancestry.
The two different myths were designed to teach children two different lessons. They arose at two different stages of America’s history. They were separated by two centuries in time. One was adopted from Iberian colonies while the other was unique to Anglo-America. And they originally served two different social goals.
When did the Two Myths First Arise?
The idea that you are visibly Black despite only fractional African ancestry was first legislated in 1705 colonial Virginia, using a one-eighth blood-fraction rule. You belonged on the Black side of the color line if you had one or more great-grandparents who had belonged on the Black side of the color line.
Despite the rarity of earlier documents, we can surmise that the idea actually arose a bit earlier in the mid-colonial period, probably around 1685. This is because, throughout history, English-speaking North Americans have followed the same pattern in defining endogamous group membership. Whenever a new belief arises in the popular culture, it is recorded in letters, diaries, and literature. Eventually it is argued in courts but initially rejected in favor of the older standard. Then, after about ten years of public acceptance, the courts embrace the new idea and it becomes precedent-driven case law. Finally, after another decade or so, colonial or state legislatures catch up with now-established court practice and solidify the new belief into written statutes--in 1705 for this particular belief.
The second notion, that someone of completely European appearance and parentage can be invisibly Black due to a distant trace of African ancestry arose about two centuries later. This myth’s emergence is better documented, and we know that it first appeared as a local belief held by a few people in the Ohio Valley in the 1840s. Courts throughout the nation did not accept it until the 1890s. It was first legislated into written laws during the two decades of 1910-1930.
From Where did British North Americans Get the Two Ideas?
British colonists did not invent the first myth, the notion of visible but fractional Blackness. Iberian colonists had applied similar beliefs for centuries, even during the Moorish occupation. What varied by place and time was precisely where the cut-off lay. In other words, what exactly did it mean when an antebellum New Englander, a Virginian, a South Carolinian, a Louisianan, and a Cuban each said that someone “looked Black.” It is common knowledge that they would disagree when presented with specific individuals. Until the Civil War, the U.S. North and upper South were extreme in rejecting even the most subtle racialized features. But Iberian colonists throughout the hemisphere also thought it important to identify those who looked too African to be acceptable into White society. The difference was merely in where they drew the line
The second myth, that of invisible Blackness, has arisen nowhere else on earth. One must conclude therefore that Anglo-Americans invented it with little outside help. There were precedents. The idea of invisible Blackness arose in the same region that gave birth to the political voting blocs that we now think of as “ethnicities,” but about ten years later in time. Bavarians, Hessians, and Prussians of Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish religions, with no language in common and few shared cultural traditions, had already united under a single umbrella designation called “German-American.” Similarly, Americans who descended from the diverse people of the distinct counties of Ireland united in a similar fashion, as did “Italian-Americans” decades later, and as Hispanics are doing now. In each such case, group membership was sometimes voluntary, sometimes socially ascribed, but usually subjectively invisible. (Although to this day some Englishmen insist that they can identify Irishmen solely by their “racial” appearance.)
What Social Purpose Did the Myths Serve?
“Myth” as used here follows the anthropological definition. The word is not meant merely to imply untruth or fallacy. To an anthropologist, a “myth” is a traditional idea that is claimed to be of ancient origin, that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society. In short, myths are tales that adults tell, often to children but also to each other, in order to propagate and solidify shared beliefs that have an important social purpose.
The idea that you are visibly Black despite only fractional African ancestry arose during an extremely dangerous period (1676-1720) for the Chesapeake colonies. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 was a massive servile uprising. Thousands of European and African forced laborers captured weapons and crushed the small militia of European and African free subsistence farmers (yeomen) and aristocrats. Their siege of Jamestown lasted until British regulars arrived from Europe and rescued Governor Berkeley. Virginia then faced a problem that no other colony had ever faced before, nor ever would again. They had about 15,000 adult colonists. Of these, about 9,000 were involuntary laborers. They had to create a yeoman class virtually overnight. They did not have enough time to grow one. They did not even have time to train one. Somehow, they had to split off at least 5,000 instantly recognizable freed yeomen from the total forced labor population.
As luck would have it, about 7,000 of the 9,000 forced laborers were of visibly European descent. And so, in 1691 Virginia’s rulers outlawed intermarriage to create two groups: one comprising colonists of European descent, the other of African descendants. The endogamous color line drove a wedge vertically through all three classes: landlords yeomen, and slaves. Euro-Americans were freed from bondage and became subsistence yeomen, keeping Afro-Americans under control as Black indenture became lifelong and hereditary. As the last generation of legally mixed colonists matured over the next fourteen years, it became necessary to split them as well--hence the one-eighth blood-fraction law of 1705. In short, the notion of visible but fractional Blackness had the social purpose of preserving a newly invented endogamous color line. Ultimately, it was intended to prevent servile insurrection.
The second notion, that someone of completely European appearance and parentage can be invisibly Black due to a distant trace of African ancestry became national consensus at the start of the Jim Crow wave of terror. Although invisible-Blackness trials of the period seemed to deal with individuals, entire families were actually punished. The trials were not searches for either factual accuracy or for moral justice, since virtually all of their victims were socially and genetically White. To be sure, some may have had recent African ancestry, as do one-third of White Americans. But if this made them Black, then it means that one-third of all White Americans are also Black and the question remains—why were only these families punished?
The victims, it turns out, were families who had befriended Blacks. If friendship across the color line had been allowed to spread, the Jim Crow horror would have collapsed within a generation. And so, the myth of invisible Blackness—the idea that a disobedient White family could be consigned to the Black side of the endogamous color line—was meant to keep otherwise compassionate Whites in line. Ultimately, it was intended to preserve Black subordination. It was an unfortunate coincidence that, starting during that very period, Black leaders enforced belief in invisible Blackness in order to strengthen Black ethnic solidarity.
Frank W. Sweet
Last edited by fwsweet on Tue 24 May 2005 13:44, edited 2 times in total.