‘One-Drop Rule’ Still Haunts Us

U.S. District Judge Harold Albriton’s decision in Bethany Godby vs. Montgomery County Board of Education strikes another blow against government’s use of race categories. This case began in 1996, when Bethany Godby, a 13-year old Cloverdale Junior High School student, claimed her school racially discriminated against her and violated other of her Federal rights when she was not allowed to run in the school’s homecoming queen election as a white candidate. There were only two choices for candidates, black and white.

The essential facts of the case are this: Bethany Godby, is a mixed raced child. Her father is white, her mother is black, and she thinks of herself as being both races. Evidence in the case showed that when asked for her race on forms at school, she routinely checked both categories.

The case stemmed from her school’s policy of separately nominating “white” students and “black” students for homecoming queen. The resulting election outcome would insure a “white” queen and a “black” queen. The school board’s dual-race election policy was established during the time of transition from a racially segregated school system to an integrated one.

Recently, Judge Albritton dismissed the school board’s petition for summary judgment. The case was proceeding to trial, when in a surprising turn of events, the school board settled with Godby for an undisclosed amount of money in a confidential agreement.

More than any amount of money she received from her settlement with the Montgomery County School Board, Bethany Godby and her parents deserve our admiration for their courage. The Godby’s displayed rare courage by confronting this divisive and humiliating racial classification system. Just as Rosa Parks refused to stand behind the shameful and degrading color line on a Montgomery City bus, Bethany refused to divide her family along the school board’s benign color line.

It is regrettable, however, that this case did not go to trial. If it had, the issue of who is “black” and who is “white” would have been a central question. This was an ideal case to help resolve the color-line issue, which has plagued America since slavery ended.

During slavery, our laws codified slave status. Initially under these laws, only persons with dark skin held slave status. However, miscegenation brought on a new set of problems. How to classify the child that is half-white and half-black? What about the Quadroon or the Octoroon (a person one quarter or one eighth black respectively)?

From this dilemma emerged the infamous one-drop rule, which required a person with one drop of black blood in their heritage to be classified black. Today, we are still groping with echoes from the one-drop rule. Where do we draw the color line? And more to the point…why do we draw the color line?

Judge Albritton’s opinion provides much enlightenment for future litigants with respect to this contentious social issue. However, I look forward to the day when a judge rules that it is indeed a criminal act for a government official to use the government’s coercive power to classify any American in a racial category that offends their individual beliefs.


Originally Published: 22 April 1998, Montgomery Advertiser


One reader’s response


Right on about the stuff about the One Drop Rule.

I’m racially mixed and refuse to be pigeonholed into this or that one race.

But sometimes I was forced – like, on computer-read forms where the computer was programmed to understand only one item in the race category. One clerk told that if I filled in more than one bubble, then the computer would reject my whole application for this particular college! So, it was “give in and get pigeonholed” or else get automatically rejected for this college – by a computer – based on race alone – before my high school grades and SAT scores were even considered!

And when I was a kid – my mom, who had considerable physical, financial and emotional control over me -forced me to claim only White or (“Irish and German”) and to deny my eastern Native American and/or sub-Saharan African heritage (which she shared – she got her non-White ancestry all from her father, who claimed to be “all Irish” – even to his family – when in truth, he was indeed more Irish than any other one thing, but he was also Native American and/or Negro). Mom denied being “prejudiced”. In fact, she specifically told me on many occasions that prejudice and discrimination were wrong. But her way of dealing with it was to hide from it rather than to stand up and fight it. She fearfully told me, “Society says that one drop of Negro blood makes you all Negro. If it becomes known that my Daddy might have been part Negro, then society will consider us to be ALL NEGRO and NOTHING BUT NEGRO and we will get discriminated against.” Then she swore me to secrecy. Plus, she and I had an additional problem – my Dad was openly an anti-Black racist. Mom said that he would divorce her and abandon all us kids if he ever found out. (I told her it would be GOOD if he divorced her and such because he was a very violent man and we would be better off as a so-called “broken” family. But mom rejected this. She would rather live in an unhappy marriage with a violent man.)

He even belonged to some all-White club called “The White Eagles.” He never told us he was a member of the White Eagles, m fact, he never even mentioned that such a club as the White Eagles even existed. I only knew because one day I was snooping in among his things and found his “White Eagles” membership card. His name was typed on it and his signature was on it. And on the card itself, was pre-printed not only the word “White Eagles” in large type at the top, but also in smaller type that “To be a member of the White Eagles, you must be of the caucasion race.” In spite my previously knowing of my Dad’s anti-Black racism, it still upset me that he would join a segregated “club”.

I also wondered if this “White Eagles” was really “the Klan” – in other words, a front for a local klavern (local chapter of the Klan), perhaps. This makes sense in that Dad, who was already openly racist, would not normally hide from us his membership in some club that was indeed nothing more than a drinking club and fraternal organization – albeit segregated. He did not consider social segregation to be bad. But since he knew that mom and all us kids did not agree with his anti-Black racism, if he were in something like the Klan – a secret society that he knew Mom and all us kids opposed strongly, he would have kept hidden from us the fact that he was a Klansman (if he indeed was). The idea that my own Dad might be in the Klan upset me very much – and of course, put all the more pressure on me to keep mine and Mom’s and all my sibling’s non-White, perhaps even specifically Black, ancestry secret. I knew from the grapevine that we lived “in a kluklux area” and feared what “the Klan” would do to us if THEY found out. I also knew that the Klan feared and hated mixed-race people a lot more than they did pure-Black people. This was because we mixed people were a much bigger “threat” to their purity of the White race doctrine, m fact, I was so frightened that I did not even tell Mom or my siblings about the White Eagles membership card I found. I feared that Mom would confront him with it. I feared what Dad would do to us (or his Klan buddies would compel him to do to us) if he knew that we knew about his “White Eagles” membership. For whatever reason, it was obvious to me that he did not want Mom and us kids to know he was a “White Eagle.”

But against all this dismay, upsettedness, and fear, I did find humor in the fact that these “White Eagles” * who seemed to think that “the Caucasian race” was so superior – still did not know to write “Caucasian” instead of “Caucasian.” Not only did they fail to capitalize it, they also misspelled it!

Well, I agree with all of your stated criticisms of the One Drop Rule. But I would like to add some more. The federal govt’s “five categories” also blurs subcategories within “White.” For example, in some community or company or school, there might be rampant discrimination against, say Italians or Polish or Irish and massive favoritism of English and Scottish and Germans. Yet, as long as all White people are forced to oversimplify their heritage as “White” – such blatant infra-White discrimination will go undetected – at least undetected in a “provable” way.

I always resented the “White” oversimplification. I wanted to claim “German and Irish” instead. But was forced to oversimplify it as “White.” The same goes for my Native American and African parts. I wish very much to know exactly which tribal and ethnic groups my non-White ancestors were part of and which languages they spoke. Instead of “Native American” I would much rather be able to put down something like “Cherokee” or “Powhattan.” Instead of “Black” I would much rather be able to put down something like “Igbo” or “Mandinka.” Tragically, I might never be able to research the non-White lines of my ancestry down to anything more specific than “eastern Native American” and/or “Sub-Saharan African.”

Also, I am bothered by the new “Biracial” and “Multiracial” categories (with at the same time, no option allowed to specify which two or three or more races I am).

Bi and Multiracial blurs what I really am too. Sure, it is an improvement over being allowed to claim only White or only Black or only Native American. But I would really rather be able to check off individually each race – and even more so, be able to state individual “subracial” heritages (such as Powhattan, Seneca, Irish, Yoruba, Kru, Mandinka, etc.) With “Biracial” or “Multiracial” it seems that the authors of the form I have to fill out do not care whether I’m part Bengalese and part Chinese or whether I’m part Cherokee and part African American and part Irish. It is like all of us bi- and multiracial people are all alike. This is another form of compelling us do deny our true heritages.



Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>