About Race:
The Census' One-Drop Rule

By Charles Michael Byrd

(The following appeared as an Op-Ed piece in the June 14, 1995 issue of New York Newsday.)

On April 7 of this year, President Clinton, at a forum sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Dallas, was asked a question by Marcia McQuern of The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, California. McQuern asked: "We have heard from several people here that there ought to be a multiracial box on the U.S. Census forms so that people with parents of two races wouldn't have to deny one of them. What do you think should happen here?"

The President replied: "I wouldn't be opposed to that. That's the first time I ever heard it, but it makes sense.....We are clearly going to have more and more multiracial, multiethnic children and families in this country. You're the first person who ever asked me that question. But I think it ought to be done. I can't see any reason not to do it."

Neither can I, Mr. President. As a person of white, black and Cherokee heritage, the person I see in the mirror looks far different from the person described in census categories. That's why I support the coalition of multiracial advocacy groups lobbying the Census Bureau for a multiracial category by the year 2000. Today, the Census acknowledges only four groups: American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black and White.

I long ago came to loathe the "One-Drop Rule." That's the Jim Crow-inspired maxim that holds if you have a drop of "black blood," you are automatically classified as black in America. Mixed-race individuals, with fair complexions and straight hair, are generally pigeonholed according to the race of the minority parent or, if the parents are from two different minorities, according to the race of the mother. Such rules don't allow mixed-race individuals to claim their entire heritage.

Most whites have never heard of "One-Drop." These days, lamentably, it's the black community that enforces the notion that a person of mixed-heritage should forget that he or she is actually a blend of two or more different "races."

It is tragically ironic that blacks nowadays have fallen into nearly total agreement with an old slavemaster concept that sought to preserve the "purity" of the white race by ferreting out all who had "tainted" blood. Current African-American political leadership opposes the multiracial initiative as one that would diminish its accrued political power. The black intelligentsia -- led by the NAACP, which is on record as opposing a multiracial category -- views power as a numbers game. The more people who identify as black, the more power those leaders amass; the fewer the number of people identifying as black, the less political power and the less support for programs such as what remains of affirmative action.

For example, in a Feb. 5, 1995 New York Newsday article about the nascent multiracial movement, Jon Michael Spencer, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, warned: "If the multiracial movement had taken root, or a 'mulatto' category had been kept throughout the 20th century, black progress might have been no progress at all."

This statement insults all blacks. Spencer seems to say that blacks lack the capacity to flourish and prosper unless aided by number crunchers. He suggests that blacks would have made no progress at all if their collective numbers had not been inflated by including multiracial individuals.

David Wheeler, a white man with an African-American wife and an adopted biracial daughter, is working on a book about the multiracial movement. He says: "Too many black intellectuals are making the assumption that in a multiracial movement, those who prefer to identify as mixed would not be subject to discrimination and would not fight for the civil rights of others. Separatist ideology rules once again. Why is it so many people can only conceive of a society in which each tribe is only fighting for its own rights and no one exists who might fight for the rights of others?"

Why indeed? In this climate, when conservatives have taken over Congress, and when the U.S. Supreme Court has just cast doubt on the constitutionality of some federal affirmative action programs, the NAACP and the rest of black leadership should recognize that affirmative action and other race-based programs will be forced to undergo a major overhaul. The radical-right must not succeed in abolishing these programs, but black leadership must become more sophisticated in the way it handles the race issue. Many "mulattoes," are more than willing to forfeit participation in any government program in exchange for the basic right to self-identify.

This discussion of racial identity is already blowing the lid off most people's perceptions of race, and that's good. Eventually, all racial classifications should be jettisoned. Until that day comes, the multiracial category is a good first step along the way to "racial" sanity.


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