Opinion: Why One Drop Matters

What on earth does Halle Berry's child custody case have to do with Jim Crow?

That's easy. Race intersects with almost everything in America.

Today, Halle Berry is in a bit of hot water for talking about race the way we black people often talk amongst ourselves—honestly—to Ebony Magazine. "I feel like shes black. Im black and Im her mother and I believe in the one-drop theory," she told Ebony magazine in the March cover story.

The One Drop Rule is the colloquial term in the United States for the social classification, as black, of people with any African ancestry. We didn't come up with it. White people did. And it isn't just semantic. The Rule was put into law in the twentieth century. The best example of this was in Virginia with the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

It was reflected most clearly in the anti-miscegenation laws that strictly prohibited intermarriage marriage between blacks and whites, blacks and Native Americans, Native and African Americans intermarriage of any sort. But don't be fooled. The primary purpose of these laws was to preserve and protect the purity of the white race.

What was the one drop test? This is where it gets really nuts.

In some states, the test was parentage. For example, in one state legally colored — or black — could be defined as a person with one-quarter black ancestry, i.e. the equivalent of one grandparent. In another state, however, colored might be defined as any black ancestry before "the fourth degree," going back to great-great-grandparents.

Other states actually tried to parse it in with fractions: One-sixteenth, one-thirty-second. In Virginia, the Racial Integrity Act defined a person as black if the individual had any African ancestry, or one drop.

It was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court outlawed Virginia's ban on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia and struck down the Racial Integrity Act. In effect, that decision declared the One Drop Rule unconstitutional:

[T]he State's legitimate purposes were "to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens," and to prevent "the corruption of blood," "a mongrel breed of citizens," and "the obliteration of racial pride," obviously an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy....we find the racial classifications in these statutes repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment.

It all seems rather silly, until you remember that none of this happened that long ago. Halle Berry was born in 1966, and this happened in her lifetime.

And so, lots of folks, of various ethnic heritages, including Halle and myself, have had to develop our own identities, in the context of this one drop reality.

With that in mind, let's consider the rest of what Ms. Berry had to say to Ebony Magazine, the part of the interview that has gotten far less attention than the One Drop Rule. "I'm not going to put a label on it," she continued, speaking about her daughter. "I had to decide for myself and that's what she's going to have to decide how she identifies herself in the world. And I think, largely, that will be based on how the world identifies her. That's how I identified myself. But I feel like she's black."

Still don't get it? Well, I get it. I get it to the core.

I get it because I share something in common with Halle Berry. Like Halle, I had to choose my racial identity based on how others saw me. Like Halle, I have a white mother and a black father. Like Halle, my skin is brown in a country that, until the 1990s, recognized only "Black, White, Other."

Also, like Halle, I was born in the 1960s, grew up in the wake of the civil rights movement, awash in the shadows of Dr. King and Brown v. Board of Education. It was an America full of promise for me and for my brothers and sisters of mixed parentage. Unlike today, we were few and far between.

In 1954, the year my parents married, it was illegal in a majority of states for them to do so. That left the products of these unions illegitimate by definition and vulnerable by default.

We were called Mulatto when that term was still pejorative. We were also called Melungeon (a term so rare now that readers will no doubt have to Google it). Oreo, half-breed, half-nigger. And this wasn't just behind our backs. To our faces. Not just on the playground. In the classroom. Not just in the Deep South. Here, in New York City. Not just in the outer boroughs. In Manhattan. In places like Greenwich Village and on the Upper East Side.

So, Halle Berry may not choose her words as carefully as a politician, but this is the realpolitik she is talking about. She may not be as eloquent as a preacher, but this is the painful process of self-identification that people like us remember. This was a place where skin color and the fullness of your lips and the broadness of your nose could give you away. And, if we are to be honest about it, as Ms. Berry was, America is a place where these factors still determine too much.

Halle knows this will still be the reality for her daughter. I know she knows because I know it too.

A generation later, I see my young children step out into a more perfect union. But it is an America that is far from perfect. They have already encountered the N-word, slights about their hair and features and an overall culture that celebrates their Anglo Saxon great-grandparents (who were slaveholders) while discounting their African American ancestors (who were slaves).

Halle Berry may have chosen the wrong words but she makes the right point. It is important to read past her ugly custody case to have a larger conversation about race (one the baby's father apparently does not want to have). Her daughter will have to choose a racial identity, the way she had to choose a racial identity. In America, that means it will probably be chosen, at least in part, by the way people react to her. In America, her skin color (black or white) will be something that people use to define her.

I applaud Halle Berry's courage, if not her choice of words. When she says, "I believe in the one drop theory," of course, she does not mean to endorse racism. But she does have the courage to do something so few Americans can: talk about race.

There are those who will say that life will be different for Halle's children and mine. That the next generation won't think in terms of race. Consider the big stir created when the New York Times ran its piece last week about more young Americans identifying as mixed race, and the follow-up piece this week about how these mixed identities aren't fitting into the neat categories we use to track race. But I've seen it all before. In 1995, Lise Funderberg released Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity. The book was wonderful. It stirred a great deal of controversy about whether we were headed toward new kind of country. I think we are. But in tiny baby steps — not by leaps and bounds.

Halle Berry and I really have nothing in common. But in America, we have everything in common. Because, America remains a place that is defined by race, whether it is the One Drop Rule something much more subtle, race is something that matters to us and matters to our children — children who are uniquely positioned to help their country someday move beyond it.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.