The political history of defining race

In several states, including North Carolina, a drop of black blood once determined which restrooms, waiting rooms and other facilities you could use.
In several states, including North Carolina, a drop of black blood once determined which restrooms, waiting rooms and other facilities you could use.

North Carolina’s House Bill 2 has prompted so many weird assertions that some don’t get due attention. Take Gov. Pat McCrory’s recent claim about race on Fox News Sunday. When asked how a law regarding discrimination based on gender identity differed from one based on race, he replied, “We can definitely define the race of people. It’s very hard to define transgender or gender identity.”

So how has this country defined race? From the start, the definition has been a political act designed to benefit whites and disadvantage blacks.

Consider the slave Sally Hemings. Historians now generally agree that Thomas Jefferson probably fathered six children with her. With three white grandparents, she was mostly white, and she looked it. A contemporary described her as “mighty near white..., very handsome, long straight hair down her back.” But by law her children were black, and therefore legally were Jefferson’s slaves. The system worked – for whites.

Losing the Civil War didn’t keep racism out of policy making for long. By the early 1900s whites’ devotion to segregation led to laws based on a “one-drop rule” – a single drop of “black blood” in your veins made you black. The black activist Malcolm X reportedly said black blood must be powerful stuff if one drop could overcome all that white blood.

North Carolina enacted such a law in 1923. It dictated whether you’d use the White or Colored restroom and water fountain, what school you’d attend, and whether you could vote – that is, whether you’d be a first- or second-class citizen.

Virginia, however, had a problem. Though whites, blacks and native Americans had been producing mixed-race babies there for centuries, a Racial Integrity Act proposed in 1924 would have classified babies at birth as either white or colored. Colored would have included babies with Indian ancestry.

Hold on there, said some influential First Families of Virginia. They proudly traced their lineage to include Pocahontas, a Powhatan Indian who in 1607 saved the life of John Smith, a founder of Jamestown, the New World’s first permanent English colony. She later married John Rolfe, a prominent and wealthy colonist.

To placate the FFV, legislators concocted the “Pocahontas Exception”: a person with no more than one-sixteenth Indian blood could be considered white.

The one-drop rule is long gone, but it shaped our country’s perception of race. Why else would Tiger Woods, who is one-fourth black, one-fourth Thai, one-fourth Chinese, one-eighth Caucasian and one-eighth American Indian, be considered black?

By the way, governor, here’s how the U.S. Census Bureau determines a person’s race: It asks, and each person chooses. Simple, eh?

Ed Williams retired in 2008 as editor of The Observer’s editorial pages. He’s the author of “Liberating Dixie: An Editor’s Life, from Ole Miss to Obama.”