The history of the "one drop" rule and how it impacts Americans today

The new book "One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race," by author and activist Yaba Blay, Ph.D, explores racial identity and the constructs that were created in the United States. Blay joins CBSN's Tanya Rivero to explain the history of the rule and its impact today.

Video Transcript

TANYA RIVERO: The US has a history of being a mixing pot for different cultures, religions, and races. When it comes to race, American people who are Black are often categorized by an old rule. It is called the one drop rule. Joining me now from Philadelphia is Yaba Blay. She is a scholar and activist. She is the author of "One Drop, Shifting the Lens on Race," which is available now. Welcome, Yaba, and congratulations on your book. It's really beautiful.

In your book, you dig into the constructs of being Black and the color lines that certain colonial powers put in place, you know, to sort of categorize people. Can you explain to our viewers what the one drop rule means?

YABA BLAY: Right, so the one drop rule is really a way of us thinking about Blackness, both as a matter of biology and a matter of law. The one drop rule was instituted in this country with the enslavement of African people when there was a question of what to do, not only with the Blacks, but what to do with the product of the so-called mixing of the races, which was really the white colonists raping enslaved African women and those women having children.

And so the question was, how do we make sense of who these children are? Do these children belong to these white American fathers? And so in creating this rule of hypodescent, which essentially said that if there is any person in your bloodline who is Black, then you, too, are Black or would be considered Black. At the time, they defined whiteness as pure, and that's the language that they use.

And so in order to have access to the privilege and advantages assigned to whiteness, you had to be pure. If you had one drop of Black blood, however which way you quantify that, then you were Black.

TANYA RIVERO: You stated that in New Orleans, there was an exception for Creoles, stating that they, quote, "functioned as a buffer class that helped whites maintain their dominant status and keep unmixed Blacks in their place. So having acknowledgment and favor of whites, Creoles sort of emerged as an elite class." So do you believe that this fed the colorism divide in the Black community as well?

YABA BLAY: Absolutely. I mean, I think white supremacy in general is what feeds colorism, right? That if we hold whiteness as pure and supreme and at the top of the hierarchy and Blackness as it's a born opposite and at the bottom, then everyone in between is going to be fighting for some level of approximation to whiteness. This is where we get the kind of discord between, quote unquote, "minority" groups or who will be seen as the model minority because everyone's trying to gain access to the favor of whiteness.

So I think colorism is fueled by that. Colorism is fueled by racial hierarchy in general, but absolutely in New Orleans, where we not only see privileges assigned to whiteness versus Blackness, that we also see incremental privileges assigned to those with lighter skin. So the closer you were to whiteness, the more human you were seen.

So whereas that one drop of Black blood might align you more with those uncivilized, barbaric Africans that we enslaved, one drop of white blood might give us some level of security, safety, even, to believe that you're more like us than them.

TANYA RIVERO: And it's hard to believe that this one drop, you know, philosophy had legal status not even that long ago. It's been just 54 years since the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage. In 1967, the US Supreme Court ruled that Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Loving, a Black woman, could legally marry, and finally deemed Virginia's one drop rule unconstitutional. It's amazing, that's really not that long ago. But how have things changed between then and now?

YABA BLAY: Well, let me also say this. And I write about this in the book. So the Loving case was overturned in 1967. It wasn't until the year 2000 that the state of Alabama overturned its antimiscegenation laws, just 2000, right? And so what this case did basically made it legal for interracial couples to marry. Because in the Lovings case, the sheriff entered their home hoping to catch them in the act of sex, which was also illegal, and they were arrested.

They pleaded, and it took them eight, nine, 10 years to have those convictions overturned. And so on the books, it is legal to marry. We talk about all of these legal cases, whether it's defining Blackness, defining whiteness, whether or not we're allowed to marry, what to make of mixed-race children. Once it's on the books, it creates a particular reality. But also it's bigger than what's on the books because we have to also think about the ways in which we live within society. So the law might say one. Thing there also need to be questions and considerations of how we interact.

TANYA RIVERO: And speaking of how we live within society, let's talk about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Their interview with Oprah Winfrey shined a light once again on race. So let's listen to a little bit of it.

MEGHAN MARKLE: And also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he's born.

OPRAH WINFREY: What?

MEGHAN MARKLE: And--

OPRAH WINFREY: Who-- who is having that conversation with you?

TANYA RIVERO: So Yaba, do you think the concern about little baby Archie's skin tone is impacted by this one drop rule?

YABA BLAY: You know, the one drop rule was characteristically historically American. There are lots of other ways of thinking about race in the world across the diaspora. But in general, again, if we keep bringing it back to the ideology of white supremacy, particularly as it's connected to the crown, to the monarchy, we shouldn't be surprised by these concerns.

I actually was more surprised that Harry was, quote unquote, allowed to even Marry Meghan. And so the concerns for Archie's complexion, I think what surprises folks is, well, look at Meghan. Look at Harry. Look at Archie. Of course he would be light skinned. Of course he would be white passing or white presenting.

But the concern comes because we saw her mother. We're clear about who her mother is, and many of us who live in all manner of communities know that our appearance, you know, genetically can skip a few generations. And so when we see her mother, regal, beautiful, natural hair locks, you know, escorting her into the palace where she's married, there are no questions about who Meghan is.

So now that you and Harry are going to have children, we have questions about who your children might be.

TANYA RIVERO: Fascinating. And Yaba Blay, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your insight.

YABA BLAY: Thank you for having me.