In “The Souls of Black Folks,” W.E.B. Du Bois writes of the 20th Century, “I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century.” Yohuru Williams, Ph.D., a professor of history at St. Thomas University, says it is unclear when this color line came into existence.
What is clear is the intent behind it. Determining who was free and who would be enslaved could easily be categorized by skin color, and the one-drop rule was the philosophy that justified chattel slavery in America.
Williams grew up during the 1970s in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to parents interested in the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. When Williams was young, Gary Crooks, an eight-year-old boy, was killed in a sewage treatment plant that was poorly maintained. Gary Crooks Memorial Center was born out of the protest that followed his death. It included a cultural art center.
“My dad was a music instructor in that program,” Williams says. “This [was a] space where young Black kids were exposed to music, art, history, dance, and African American culture and history. That’s where my love of history awakened and where I got my interest in the marriage between history and civil rights and social activism.”
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Williams explains, Thomas Jefferson wrestles with the idea that dark skin denotes inferiority—even without a clear understanding of how the difference in skin color is produced—while advocating for abolition. “Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarfskin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of the blood, the color of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature.”
Once slavery was abolished, the one-drop rule set the tone for race laws introduced during the Civil War and Reconstruction era when rights for first-class citizenship were being determined. “So even though you have the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, how can you reduce or limit efforts for African Americans to contend for first-class citizenship? The way that many states do that is through what we call Jim Crow laws today,” says Williams.
A 1927 case in Mississippi, Lum v. Rice, set the stage for school segregation. A Chinese family wanted their daughter to go to a White school, but they were told she had to go to a colored school. The case goes before the United States Supreme Court, which rules in favor of segregation. In her book “Proud Shoes” Pauli Murry, the great-grandchild of an interracial couple, details the history of her family and their journey navigating laws created to define Blackness and limit access.
“In America, the litmus test for access isn’t whether one is Black, it’s whether one is not White,” explains Williams. “[It’s] why those signs don’t read White and Black, they read White and colored. There are a lot of people who would not have seen themselves as part and parcel of that conversation, who would have been classified as colored and denied access to public places of accommodation and other attributes of first-class citizenship based on the fact that they were not White.”
Though the one-drop rule created laws that blocked access for Blacks and other people of color from equal protection under the law, it allowed others the opportunity based on complexion to pass for Whites. Some did so without using the privilege for personal gain.
While the British discouraged race mixing, the French were not so strict, which made Louisiana a state where it was hard to assign race based on complexion or hair texture. This made it fertile ground for Plessy v. Ferguson, challenging the Louisiana law of separate railcars for Blacks and Whites.
Homer Plessy had no discernable African characteristics. He had to tell the conductor that he was of African descent. The Supreme Court decided that separate but equal did not violate the constitution.
When poet and activist Alice Dunbar Nelson arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, from her Louisiana birthplace to teach in a colored school, her fair complexion allowed her a seat in the White section of the movie theater. “It’s not until the school semester starts and they see that she is teaching in the Black school that then she is relegated to the colored section,” Williams explains.
Walter White used his fair complexion to become one of the NAACP’s best lynching investigators by going to lynching sites and interviewing participants who assumed he was a White man sympathetic to their cause. “There are stories about lynch mobs being on the lookout for this so-called White negro from the NAACP who was exposing their practices.”
There is no denying the damage the one-drop rule caused in the African American community. It has been rumored that some Black colleges require applicants to send a photo with their application. Those whose skin was darker than a paper bag were denied admittance.
Williams. who attended Howard University, says it’s difficult to deny the rumors after seeing the photographs of former students and university heads. “It is this very Creole/mulatto elite that you see on the walls of the university,” he says.
“It contributed to the poisoning in relationships within the Black community between lighter-complected Black people and people who are more easily or readily identified as Black.”
This color line had legal effects as well. Dependent on charitable donations, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was very selective in cases they accepted, making sure that expended resources yielded positive results. When Theodore Russ was accused of raping a White woman bootlegger, the NAACP took on the case because Russ appeared to be a White man.
“What the NAACP legal defense fund is saying is that we believe that if a jury looks at a person who for all intents and purposes looks like them—their husband, their brother, their wife, their cousin—it would be harder to convict.” Russ, however, was convicted and hung.
The NAACP declined the Scottsboro case, convinced that the public image of the dark-skinned rapist was so prevalent in the public imagination that a conviction of the nine defendants would be the only outcome. As a result, the Communist Party took on the case.
“That did terrible damage within the Black community,” says Williams. “[There are] people who are dark-complected who are worthy of that defense or worthy of that same consideration. And those things I think are still with us in many ways today,”
Though legislation is not currently being passed that specifies skin color, it is still part of the American experience. In his memoir, Colin Kaepernick credits his light skin to being adopted into a White family and growing up in an environment with people unaware of their own racism.
When taking a knee for Black Lives Matter, “Colin Kaepernick is embraced by the African American community. No one questions his Blackness. And yet at the same time, you see his identification with Blackness automatically by default means that he’s Black with all the assumptions that go along with that.”
Current DNA technology today makes having a substantial conversation about the one-drop rule ridiculous. “The simple classifications that we used at the turn of the century—1/8th, 1/16th negro blood which there was no technology at the time to ascertain—really today could get down to that level of granularity, and most people would find out that the one-drop rule would indict them, rather than clear them.”
In Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, her focus is on the global anti-blackness experience of those with dark skin in India, and the indigenous people of Australia. Here in the U.S., alt-right and Trumpism conversations center on who should and should not be considered first-class citizens. “This is all about claiming a racial birthright that’s largely dependent on being able to identify as being White.”
Williams contends, “The problem of the 21st Century remains the problem of the color line, and the one-drop rule, because that is consistent, remains something that we have to tackle if we really want to talk about making progress in terms of, not a color-blind society…but a body which recognizes, celebrates and embraces its differences as a strength and not a liability.”