"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


“Drop” of blood still enough to get you perceived as minority?

Dec. 14, 2010
Courtesy of Harvard University, 
American Sociological Association
and World Science staff

The centuries-old “one-drop rule,” hold­ing that mixed-race peo­ple are mi­nor­i­ties be­fore the law, seems to live on in our mod­ern-day views and cat­e­gor­iz­a­tion of peo­ple like Barack Obama, Ti­ger Woods, and Hal­le Ber­ry.

So say Har­vard Uni­vers­ity psy­chol­o­gists, who’ve found that we still tend to see bira­cials not as equal mem­bers of both par­ent groups, but as be­long­ing more to their mi­nor­ity par­ent group. Their re­search ap­pears in the ad­vance on­line is­sue of the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

But an ad­di­tion­al study of­fers new twist: many mixed-race peo­ple see op­por­tun­i­ties in their abil­ity to “pass” as mem­bers of a mi­nor­ity prot­ected and even fa­vored by civil-rights laws.

“Many com­men­ta­tors have ar­gued that the elec­tion of Barack Obama, and the in­creas­ing num­ber of mixed-race peo­ple more broad­ly, will lead to a fun­da­men­tal change in Amer­i­can race rela­t­ions,” said Ar­nold K. Ho, lead au­thor of the Har­vard stu­dy. “Our work chal­lenges the in­ter­preta­t­ion of our first bi­ra­cial pres­ident, and the grow­ing num­ber of mixed-race peo­ple in gen­er­al, as sig­nal­ing a col­or-blind Amer­i­ca,” added Ho, a Ph.D. stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy.

In the U.S., the “one-drop rule” — al­so known as hy­pode­s­cent — dates to a 1662 Vir­gin­ia law on the treat­ment of mixed-race in­di­vid­u­als. The le­gal no­tion of hy­pode­s­cent has been up­held as re­cently as 1985, when a Lou­i­si­ana court ruled that a wom­an with a black great-great-great-great-grandmoth­er could not iden­ti­fy her­self as “white” on her pass­port.

“One of the re­mark­a­ble things about our re­search on hy­pode­s­cent is what it tells us about the hi­er­ar­chi­c na­ture of race rela­t­ions in the Un­ited States,” said co-au­thor James Sida­nius, an ex­pert in Af­ri­can-Amer­i­can stud­ies at Har­vard. “Hy­pode­s­cent against blacks re­mains a rel­a­tively pow­er­ful force with­in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.” Ho and co-au­thors say their work re­flects the cul­tur­al en­trench­ment of Amer­i­ca’s tra­di­tion­al ra­cial hi­er­ar­chy, which as­signs the high­est sta­tus to whites, fol­lowed by Asians, with Lati­nos and blacks at the bot­tom.

Ho and col­leagues pre­sented study partic­i­pants with computer-gene­rated im­ages of black-white and Asian-white people, as well as family trees show­ing dif­fer­ent bi­ra­cial per­muta­t­ions. The re­search­ers asked partic­i­pants to state wheth­er they per­ceived bira­cials to be more mi­nor­ity or white. The re­search­ers found, for ex­am­ple, that one-quarter-Asian people are con­sist­ently con­sid­ered more white than one-quarter-black folk, even though Af­ri­can Amer­i­cans and Eu­ro­pe­an Amer­i­cans share a sub­stan­tial ge­net­ic her­it­age.

Us­ing face-morphing tech­nol­o­gy that pre­sented a se­ries of faces rang­ing from 5 per­cent white to 95 per­cent white, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors al­so found that in­di­vid­u­als who were a 50-50 mix of two rac­es, ei­ther black-white or Asian-white, were al­most nev­er iden­ti­fied by study par­ti­ci­pants as white. Fur­ther­more, on av­er­age black-white bira­cials had to be 68 per­cent white be­fore they were per­ceived as white; the com­pa­ra­ble fig­ure for Asian-white bira­cials was 63 per­cent.

“The Un­ited States is al­ready a coun­try of eth­nic mix­tures, but in the near fu­ture it will be even more so, and more so than any oth­er coun­try on earth,” said co-au­thor Mah­zarin R. Ba­naji at Har­vard. “When we see in our da­ta that our own minds are lim­it­ed in the per­cep­tion of those who are the prod­ucts of two dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups, we rec­og­nize how far we have to go in or­der to have an ob­jec­tively ac­cu­rate and fair as­sess­ment of peo­ple. That’s the chal­lenge for mod­ern minds.”

The team found few dif­fer­ences in how whites and non-whites per­ceive bi­ra­cial in­di­vid­u­als, with both as­sign­ing them with equal fre­quen­cy to lower-sta­tus groups. The re­search­ers are con­duct­ing fur­ther stud­ies to ex­am­ine why Amer­i­cans con­tin­ue to as­so­ci­ate bira­cials more with their mi­nor­ity par­ent group.

“The per­sis­tence of hy­pode­s­cent serves to re­in­force ra­cial bound­aries, rath­er than mov­ing us to­ward a race-neutral so­ci­ety,” Ho said.

Yet many mixed-race peo­ple take the ability to be per­ceived as a “mi­nor­ity” as an op­por­tun­ity, sug­gests a sur­vey con­ducted by Uni­vers­ity of Ver­mont so­ci­ol­o­gis Nik­ki Khan­na and col­leagues. Their re­search, pub­lished in the De­cem­ber is­sue of So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy Quar­ter­ly, found that black-white bi­ra­cial adults to­day ex­er­cise con­si­der­able con­trol over which race they iden­ti­fy as. That’s a con­trast to dec­ades ago, when so­ci­e­tal norms tended to force a “black” ident­ity on such peo­ple, the au­thors ar­gued.

“Most peo­ple in my sam­ple iden­ti­fied them­selves as bi­ra­cial or mul­ti­ra­cial but talked about cer­tain situa­t­ions, with a group of friends, say, where they might down­play their white an­ces­try, which can car­ry its own neg­a­tive bi­as­es,” Khan­na said. Oth­er rea­sons cit­ed for de-em­phas­iz­ing “white­ness” in­clud­ed a de­sire to take ad­van­tage of post-Civil Rights era educa­t­ional and em­ploy­ment op­por­tun­i­ties some­times avail­a­ble to those who are black.

* * *

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The centuries-old “one-drop rule”—holding that mixed-race people are, for practical purposes, minorities—appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorization of people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Halle Berry. So say Harvard University psychologists, who’ve found that we still tend to see biracials not as equal members of both parent groups, but as belonging more to their minority parent group. Their research appears in the advance online issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. But an additional study offers new twist: many mixed-race people don’t mind, seeing opportunities in their ability to “pass” as members of a protected group. “Many commentators have argued that the election of Barack Obama, and the increasing number of mixed-race people more broadly, will lead to a fundamental change in American race relations,” said Arnold K. Ho, lead author of the Harvard study. “Our work challenges the interpretation of our first biracial president, and the growing number of mixed-race people in general, as signaling a color-blind America,” added Ho, a Ph.D. student in psychology. In the U.S., the “one-drop rule” — also known as hypodescent — dates to a 1662 Virginia law on the treatment of mixed-race individuals. The legal notion of hypodescent has been upheld as recently as 1985, when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as “white” on her passport. “One of the remarkable things about our research on hypodescent is what it tells us about the hierarchical nature of race relations in the United States,” said co-author James Sidanius, professor of psychology and of African and African American studies at Harvard. “Hypodescent against blacks remains a relatively powerful force within American society.” Ho and co-authors say their work reflects the cultural entrenchment of America’s traditional racial hierarchy, which assigns the highest status to whites, followed by Asians, with Latinos and blacks at the bottom. Ho and colleagues presented subjects with computer-generated images of black-white and Asian-white individuals, as well as family trees showing different biracial permutations. They also asked people to report directly whether they perceived biracials to be more minority or white. By using multiple approaches, their work examined both conscious and unconscious perceptions of biracial individuals, presenting the most extensive empirical evidence to date on how they are perceived. The researchers found, for example, that one-quarter-Asian individuals are consistently considered more white than one-quarter-black individuals, despite the fact that African Americans and European Americans share a substantial degree of genetic heritage. Using face-morphing technology that presented a series of faces ranging from 5 percent white to 95 percent white, they also found that individuals who were a 50-50 mix of two races, either black-white or Asian-white, were almost never identified by study participants as white. Furthermore, on average black-white biracials had to be 68 percent white before they were perceived as white; the comparable figure for Asian-white biracials was 63 percent. “The United States is already a country of ethnic mixtures, but in the near future it will be even more so, and more so than any other country on earth,” said co-author Mahzarin R. Banaji at Harvard. “When we see in our data that our own minds are limited in the perception of those who are the products of two different ethnic groups, we recognize how far we have to go in order to have an objectively accurate and fair assessment of people. That’s the challenge for modern minds.” The team found few differences in how whites and non-whites perceive biracial individuals, with both assigning them with equal frequency to lower-status groups. The researchers are conducting further studies to examine why Americans continue to associate biracials more with their minority parent group. “The persistence of hypodescent serves to reinforce racial boundaries, rather than moving us toward a race-neutral society,” Ho said. Yet being perceived as a “minority” is taken as a good opportunity by many mixed-race people, suggests a survey conducted by University of Vermont sociologist Nikki Khanna and colleagues. Their research, published in the December issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, found that black-white biracial adults today exercise considerable control over which race they identify as. That’s a contrast to decades ago, when societal norms tended to force a “black” identity on such people, the authors argued. “Most people in my sample identified themselves as biracial or multiracial but talked about certain situations, with a group of friends, say, where they might downplay their white ancestry, which can carry its own negative biases,” Khanna said. Other reasons cited for passing as black included a desire to take advantage of post-Civil Rights era educational and employment opportunities sometimes available to those who are black.