The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing” Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
September 15, 2004
(with permission of the author)In early twentieth-century South Carolina, at the height of the Jim Crow era when the one-drop rule was supposedly the law of the land, Louetta Chassereau, an orphaned infant of known, documented, but invisible African ancestry was placed in a White orphanage and adopted by a White family. As the little girl matured, her White adoptive family became influential in the White community. She married very well indeed, to a wealthy White man (F. Capers Bennett), in an upscale White church (Spring Street Methodist Church in Charleston). Throughout her marriage to Bennett, she voted in White primaries (Democrat), her children attended White schools and when they grew up, joined White churches (two became Episcopalians and two were Methodists). The godparents of her children were White (Mr. and Mrs. I. M. Fishburne), he being the president of the local Farmers & Merchants Bank. The problem came when Mr. Bennett died. His will left all to his beloved wife, Louetta. But his relatives contested the man’s will on the grounds that their long and fruitful marriage had been illegal all along, because Louetta had started life as a Black baby. In a terse opinion, Bennett v. Bennett,1940 South Carolina, (most of which is the above summary), South Carolina Supreme Court Justices Milledge L. Bonham, D. Gordon Baker, E. L. Fishburne, Taylor H. Stukes, and L. D. Lide ruled that over her lifetime, Louetta had become irrevocably White, and they dismissed the will contestation unanimously.1
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This essay discusses the annual rate of Black-to-White endogamous-group switching by Americans in four topics. The first section, The Average Yearly Rate is Between 0.10 and 0.14 Percent, uses several independent methods to compute the rate of switching. It shows that all converge to the same narrow range of numbers. The Percentage Rate Has Remained Relatively Steady over the Years, demonstrates why we know that Black-to-White group switching has been steady and continuous over the centuries. Our DNA reveals that the current African admixture in White Americans was neither the result of a one-time event before intermarriage was outlawed in 1691, nor the result of intermarriageafter Loving v. Virginia 1967 ruled anti-intermarriage laws unconstitutional. How Can so Many People Falsify Their Paper Trail and Cut all Family Ties, explains that, except for a brief period in U.S. history—the Jim Crow era—there has never been a need to deceive nor to cut family ties. For most of the past 300 years, endogamous-group switching was done openly, just as it is today. Finally, The Maroon Escape Hatch suggests how, even during Jim Crow, families could pass from Black to White through a two-step process that included an in-between stage.The Average Yearly Rate is Between 0.10 and 0.14 Percent
Nowadays (as of the 2000 census), between 35,000 and 50,000 young adults every year, who previously were identified by their parents as Black, switch to identifying themselves publicly as White or Hispanic. The number has fallen and risen more or less in step with the intermarriage rate over the decades and it is higher today than during Jim Crow, when switching your endogamous group membership was considered criminal fraud.
There are several ways of measuring the annual rate of Black-to-White self-identity switching, but the most straightforward is simply to ask large numbers of people how they self-identify, repeat the question every few years, and then count how many changed their answer from Black to something else. The Departments of Labor and of Health and Human Services do precisely this (along with many other questions) in longitudinal studies meant to track lifelong earnings and health, respectively, of large numbers of Americans. For example, the Department of Labor’s NLS79 National Longitudinal Survey has interviewed 12,686 young men and women yearly since 1979 to measure their career progress. Each year they are asked the same hundred or so questions. Between 1979 (when they were 14 to 22 years old) and 1998, 1.87 percent of those who had originally answered “Black,” switched to answering the interviewer’s “race” question with either “White,” “I don’t know,” or “other.”2 This comes to 0.098 percent per year. Extrapolated to the Black census 2000 population of 36 million, this comes to about 35,000 individuals per year.3
Another approach is to start with the 0.7 percent African admixture found in the White U.S. population today.4 Assuming that the mixing has happened at an unvarying rate for three centuries (since 1704), to reach this number would have required the average yearly injection into the White community of the alleles from one person of one hundred percent African genetic admixture for every 43,000 living White Americans (.0023 percent).5 Of course, such a flow is unlikely to have happened at a steady rate. Switching between endogamous groups was easier at some times than at others. But you can adjust for historical variation after establishing the baseline.
In practice, real people of one hundred percent African genetic admixture could not possibly have been accepted as members of the White endogamous group and so an adjustment is needed for the fraction of African admixture in those Blacks who did re-identify as White. Most sources agree that families with more than 25 percent African admixture are seldom accepted as White in the United States (although they may be in the Caribbean).6 On the other hand, many Blacks have no detectable African ancestry at all.7 Hence, a reasonable estimate is that typical families who successfully switched from the Black endogamous group to the White group had about 12.5 percent of African admixture. This would put them in the median of the White portion of the scatter diagrams of the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States. It would have taken eight such carriers to transport across the color line the allele equivalent of one person of 100 percent sub-Saharan ancestry. And so, to reach the current measured African admixture in White Americans would have required one such person per year switching self-identity for every 5,400 living White Americans.8
The next step is to convert this number of group-switching individuals into a fraction of the Black population. As of the 2000 census, the Black population was about 12.8 percent of the total U.S. population, but this has varied from a high of 19.27 percent in 1790 to a low of 9.65 percent in 1930. The weighted average since 1790 has been 13.51 percent. And so, the number of individuals we must account for represents a movement from the Black community to the White of some 0.1382 percent of the Black population (0.007 x 8) / (300 x .1351) per year. As of census 2000, this comes to about 50,000 individuals per year.9
Another approach would be to use the Philadelphia rate at which European-looking children are born into the Black community (one out of every 500) and extrapolate this to the national Black yearly cohort. [For details, see the topic “How Many White Children are Born Into Black Families?” in the Essay The Heredity of “Racial” Traits.] This yields about 72,000 individuals per year as of census 2000. Most of these, of course, might choose not to switch.
Finally, Joel Williamson suggests yet another approach. It is based on the assumption that women are less likely than men to cross the color line permanently.10 Approximately equal numbers of male and female infants are born. But from age 16, millions of African-American men disappear from the census but women do not. In 2000, this came to 2.77 million individuals. Where did they go? The assumption of this method is that they redefined themselves as White. This approach yields 0.1019 percent per year or about 37,000 individuals per year as of census 2000.The Percentage Rate Has Remained Relatively Steady over the Years
The preceding section used several methods to compute the average yearly rate at which Black Americans became White by switching their “racial” identity. One method was to divide the African admixture presently observed in White Americans equally among the 300 years since the endogamous color line was invented. However, the Chesapeake Bay colonies had been in operation for nearly a century when intermarriage was first outlawed in 1691. There was much Afro-European intermarriage in British North America before the endogamous color line was invented. Perhaps there has been no Black-to-White gene flow ever since. Could the African admixture found in White Americans today merely be an echo of the intermarrying 17th century, rather than evidence of the continual, steady passing of biracials into White society in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries?
There are three reasons to think that the African admixture found in today’s White Americans is the result of an ongoing process and not the remnant of a one-time event. First, as mentioned in the preceding section, longitudinal studies show that the current rate of openly avowed Black-to-White identity-switching would suffice to yield the observed admixture had it always been going on. Second, if the White-to-Black gene flow that we know has been going on for 400 years (in the form of the children of interracial unions) had not been balanced by an equal Black-to-White flow, Afro-Americans would have vanished by genetic assimilation, as did the Afro-Spanish and Afro-Portuguese by 1700, the Afro-Mexicans by 1800, and the Afro-Argentines by 1900. The third argument comes from molecular anthropology itself. It comes from observing linkage disequilibrium (defined below).
Chromosomes come in pairs. You have two copies of chromosome #1, two copies of chromosome #2, two copies of #3, and so forth. One copy of each chromosome came from your mother’s egg cell; the other came from your father’s sperm cell. Focus on a single chromosome pair; say the pair of chromosomes #5. When your body wants to produce a gamete (a spermatozoon if you are male, an ovum if you are female) it must place a single copy of chromosome #5 into the gamete. Which copy does it choose?
Think about it. You have two copies of #5, but you must place only a single copy of #5 into the new gamete. Does your body pick one or the other at random (either the #5 copy from you father or the one from your mother)? Does your body simply make up a brand new #5 never seen before? Does it blend together the material from your two copies—both the #5 copy from your father plus the one from your mother—and mold a new #5 using only half of the resultant mixture (otherwise the new #5 would be way too big)?
In fact, the process lays your two #5 chromosomes side-by-side, like two strands of yarn. It then cuts them crosswise into matching pieces and swaps the pieces between strands. Imagine that the DNA strand from your father was red, say, and your mother’s strand was blue. The cut-and-swap process (called meiosis) with just two cuts would yield one strand that was blue-red-blue and another that was red-blue-red. Many cut-and-swaps later, each new patchwork #5 then goes into a different gamete. And so, the single #5 chromosome in each gamete winds up being a mix of material from your mother’s #5 and your father’s #5. Only thus can your child inherit your mother’s eyes and your father’s chin. The single #5 in the gamete is not a “blend” in the sense of being purple (the combination of blue and red). Instead, it resembles a barber pole with broad blue and red stripes. The width of the stripes is called “linkage disequilibrium.”
As explained in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States, markers throughout the genome can be used to distinguish African from European ancestry. A first-generation Afro-European biracial individual will have one purely African chromosome #5 (from one parent) and one purely European chromosome #5 (from the other). But the strands are cut and their pieces swapped in meiosis at each subsequent generation. So if you observe that an individual has barber-pole stripes of African and European DNA within the same strand, then he must be at least a second-generation biracial. Now the chance that, in the next generation, any given cut will just happen to hit the seam between two existing stripes is negligible. Consequently, the stripes of African and European DNA get narrower and narrower (linkage disequilibrium diminishes) with each passing generation. One can estimate how many generations have elapsed since any individual’s original Afro-European admixture took place, by the width of the stripes (by the degree of linkage disequilibrium).
A recent one-time wave of intermarriage (since the 1955-65 civil rights movement, say) would result in uniformly high linkage disequilibrium in admixed Americans. This is not observed. An ancient one-time wave of intermarriage (in the seventeenth century, say) would result in uniformly low linkage disequilibrium in admixed Americans. This is not observed either. An ongoing slow but steady Black-to-White genetic leakage across the color line for 400 years would result in a distinctive pattern of linkage disequilibrium distribution (stripes of every width occurring with equal frequency). This, in fact, is what is observed.11How Can so Many People Falsify Their Paper Trail and Cut all Family Ties?
Some people are startled by what, to them, seems an extraordinarily high rate of White-to-Black endogamous-group switching over the past three centuries, a rate that is still going on. They ask:
You mentioned the phenomenon of “passing,” which you define as those who were identified as one race as children but another as adults, generally ‘black’ as a child and ‘white’ as an adult. One sees that this was relatively common in the past - but how common is this today, when we are more careful about civil records, tracking, driver’s licenses, etc.? Is this in fact a common, modern-day phenomenon? How difficult it must be for someone to cut all ties to family and literally walk away!12
First, a paper trail indicating “racial” identity was a transitory phenomenon in U.S. history, lasting only from about 1880 to about 1965.13 Most nineteenth-century births were not recorded on civil birth certificates, just with local churches. And since Alabama ended the practice in 1991, only five states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas) put infant “race” on birth certificates today. Some states never did so, and most stopped doing soin the late 1960s.14 Similarly, neither driver’s licenses nor voter registration cards record “racial” identity in most jurisdictions today. This is precisely why “racial” profiling is so controversial. In Florida, for example, neither the state voter registration web site nor the Flagler County voter registration card has any entry for “race,” while the Alachua County card does. The few civil records today that capture one’s “race” (jobs, school matriculation, etc) are voluntary. You can check off or write in whatever you want and, with one exception, nobody questions it.15 If you look European and claim to be White, nobody cares.
The word “passing” is a misnomer to the extent that it is associated with deceit or pretense. As far as anyone can tell, most of the individuals who redefine themselves from Black to White or Hispanic make no secret of their partial African ancestry. They just do not feel that this trivial fact should stop them from adopting a “racial” self-identity that matches their appearance. There is no need to “cut all family ties and walk away.”
White Americans with openly acknowledged partial African ancestry abound in the entertainment industry. The official web sites of many entertainers claim mixed ancestry. As of July 1, 2003, URL addresses http://www.mixedfolks.com/africans.htm and http://www.multiracial.com/links/links-celebrities.html provide links to hundreds of such sites. Among these are blue-eyed blondes like Broadway star Carol Channing and Heather Locklear, star of the TV show Melrose Place.16 At the other extreme are brunettes like Jennifer Beals, star of the movie Flashdance (who has a Black father). Of in-between skin tone are Oscar-winning film and TV star Martin Sheen (an Afro-Cuban grandmother) and Emmy-winning vocalist Linda Ronstadt (an Afro-Mexican grandfather). Additionally, there are thousands of Hispanic entertainers, such as Geraldo Rivera, Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, or Mariah Carey, who proudly claim African as well as Spanish roots through their Latin American heritage.
That switching sides has risen in the past few decades makes it likely that many switchers are following the example of the millions of Puerto Ricans who have come to the mainland since 1950. Most Puerto Ricans have obvious African ancestry, but 90 percent check off “White” onthe census form anyway.17 In fact, given that all methods of estimating the rate of Black-to-White identity-switching converge on the 0.10-to-0.14 percent per year figure derived from the observed African admixture in White Americans, legendary tales of “cutting all family ties” and deception more likely belong to the realm of fictional “passing” novels than to the reality of America’s notoriously mobile society. (Except perhaps during the Jim Crow period and, even then, apparently only Whites were deceived regarding ongoing family contact.) As Maria P.P. Root put it in “Resolving ‘Other’ Status: Identity Development of Biracial Individuals,” Women and Therapy 9 (1990): 202 , “It is not uncommon that many individuals emerge out of college years with a different resolution to their racial identity than when they graduated high school.”Part II follows: