Dropping The ‘One Drop’ Rule

It is probably the most pernicious idea ever to gain general acceptance in America. No idea has done more, and more lasting, damage than the “one drop” rule, according to which if you have any admixture of black ancestry, you are black, period. This idea imparted an artificial clarity to the idea of race, and became the basis of the laws, conventions and etiquette of slavery, then of segregation and subsequently of today’s identity politics, in which one’s civic identity is a function of one’s race (or ethnicity, or gender, or sexual preference).

Today nothing more scaldingly reveals the intellectual bankruptcy and retrograde agenda of the institutionalized–fossilized, really–remnants of the civil-rights movement than this: those remnants constitute a social faction clinging desperately to the “one drop” rule, or some inchoate and unarticulated version of that old buttress of slavery and segregation. However, in California, where much of modern America has taken shape, a revolt is brewing–a revolt against the malignant legacy of that rule, and against identity politics generally, and in favor of a colorblind society. The revolt is gathering strength–and signatures.

The signatures–1.1 million of them, by April 10–are required to put the Racial Privacy Initiative on California’s November ballot. If enacted, the RPI will prevent government agencies in California from classifying individuals by race, ethnicity, color or national origin for any purpose pertaining to public education, public contracting or public employment.

Who can object to the RPI 50 years after Ralph Ellison, in “Invisible Man,” his great novel about black experience in America, wrote, “Our task is that of making ourselves individuals”? Who can object to the RPI 48 years after Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney representing the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education, said, “Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious that a state bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not involve them in any public sphere”? Who can object to the RPI 34 years after Martin Luther King died struggling for a society in which Americans “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”?

Who? Here is who: People who make their living by Balkanizing America into elbow-throwing grievance groups clamoring for government preferment. Such people include blacks in the civil-rights industry who administer today’s racial spoils system of college admissions and contract set-asides, and white liberals who have a political stake in blacks forever thinking of themselves as permanently crippled by history and hence permanent wards of government.

But Ward Connerly says: Enough–actually, much too much–already. Connerly, the prime mover behind the RPI, is a successful businessman, a member of the University of California Board of Regents, and the man responsible for California voters enacting in 1996 Proposition 209 to eliminate government-administered racial preferences. He is black.

At least, he is according to the “one drop” rule. Never mind that one of his grandparents was of African descent, another was Irish, another was Irish and American Indian, another was French Canadian. Furthermore, by the “one drop” rule, the children he and his Irish wife have had are black. And his grandchildren are black, even the two whose mother is half Vietnamese.

A modest proposal: Instead of calling them, or grandfather Ward, blacks, why not call them Californians? In California today more children are born to parents of different races than are born to two black parents. In a recent 15-year span (1982-97) multiracial births in California increased 40 percent. There has been a sharp increase in the number of applicants to the University of California who refuse to stipulate their race.

The RPI follows the logic of the 2000 U.S. Census. The 1790 census classified Americans into five categories–white males 16 years and older, white males less than 16 years, white females, other white persons and slaves. In 1860 Chinese and American Indian were added as distinct races. By 1990 the census offered five major categories: white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Native Alaskan and other. But births to black-white interracial parents nearly tripled in the 1990s. It is morally offensive and, the “one drop” rule notwithstanding, preposterous for a child of such a marriage to be required to choose to “be” the race of just one parent. And why should the alternative be “other”?

So in 2000 the census expanded the available choices from five to 63. The 63 did not include the category Tiger Woods concocted for himself–“Cablinasian,” meaning Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian. But the 63 threatened those race-and-ethnicity entrepreneurs who toil to maximize their power and profits by maximizing the numbers they purport to speak for–the numbers of people who supposedly are clearly this or that race or ethnicity. Hence the hysteria against the RPI.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s chapter in Berkeley–of course–says the RPI would effectively return California to “pre-1964” status. That is, to before the law that guaranteed blacks access to voting booths and public accommodations. Orwellian language multiplies: Professional racemongers denounce the RPI’s ban on racial preferences as “racist,” and people whose livelihood depends on dividing Americans into irritable clumps denounce the RPI as “divisive.”

The RPI is sound social policy for a nation in which racial and ethnic boundaries are becoming wonderfully blurry. This accelerating development should please Americans regardless of whether they accept, reject or are agnostic about the idea that the very concept of race is scientifically dubious, or is a mere convention–a “social construct.”

By enacting the RPI, the one eighth of Americans who are Californians can help the other seven eighths put the “one drop” rule where it belongs–in a far corner of the mental attic where the nation puts embarrassments from its immaturity.