Question of the Month:

A.D. Powell and the Multiracial Question

February 2009

Q:  Your article called the “Tragic Mullatto” is interesting but flawed. You should read the writings of A.D. Powell, the multiracial activist. She could teach you a few things about how “blacks” like yourself and “white” allies persist in supporting the racist myth that anyone with a Black African ancestor is automatically Black.

-- Harold Weiss - San Francisco, California

A.D. Powell

A:  A.D. Powell is a mixed-race advocate for multiracial people, especially white Americans of mixed ancestry. She is the author of "Passing" for Who You Really Are: Essays in Support of Multiracial Whitenesss, published by Backintyme Publishing. In that book, she makes a case for multiracial whiteness replacing “white racial purity” as a dominant American racial paradigm. She resents that white-skinned multiracial people are often labeled as blacks and, according to her, “denied the rights to a European-American heritage and identity.” A.D. Powell spreads her ideas through public speaking and writing for the "Interracial Voice" (www.interracialvoice.org), and "The Multiracial Activist" (www.multiracial.org).

As you may have guessed, I have read the writings of A.D. Powell; several years ago we even had a brief, but unproductive, Internet exchange. She, too, took exception to the “Tragic Mulatto” essay that I wrote. Undergirding almost all of her writings is the irate rejection of the hypodescent practice of determining the racial classification of a mixed-race person by assigning the person to the category of the parent from the socially subordinate race. The most controversial example of hypodescent is the “one-drop rule,” meaning a person with any black ancestry is considered black. This practice derives, in part, from the discredited myth that “black blood” and “white blood” were different and correlated with certain physical and behavioral traits. This myth held that the presence of “black blood” in a “white” person – through ancestry or blood transfusions, for example – would taint the white person and create in him or her supposed traits of inferiority such as less intelligence, morality, and bravery. A.D. Powell frowned on my “Tragic Mulatto” essay because it did not condemn the “one-drop rule,” but instead treated mulattos as if they were members of the African American community.

I concede that the one-drop rule is a relic of America’s racial past, a time when all blacks were considered inferior to all whites in every important way. It is unpleasant for contemporary Americans to talk about slavery, but it virtually impossible to understand the one-drop rule without looking at the role that it played during the two centuries of institutionalized slavery.

Slavery was supported by every major societal institution. The fledgling scientific community taught that blacks were inherently less human. Ministers from practically every denomination and sect taught that God supported slavery. The nation’s courts, from local courts to the United States Supreme Court, consistently ruled that blacks did not have the same rights as whites. Slaveholders supported the one-drop rule because it increased the number of slaves. The children produced by sexual unions between slaveholders and slaves were considered “colored” and often became slaves. But the one-drop rule was not just a way to justify enslaving more people, it was an expression of the deep-seated belief held by slaveholders and other whites that “blacks” were nasty, dumb, immoral, cultural parasites. Blacks were Others, a separate, distinct, and spoiled category.

During Reconstruction, some blacks enrolled in schools, owned land and guns, supervised whites, voted, and married whites. This horrified the whites who supported the enslavement of blacks. After Reconstruction, many white politicians, fearful that blacks had gained too many social rights and too much political power, rushed to codify segregation in state constitutions. To prevent interracial sexual unions (“to keep the white race pure”) and to reestablish white political, economic, and cultural supremacy, the one-drop rule was codified in state constitutions. In 1910, Tennessee adopted a one-drop statute; the next year Arkansas and Texas passed similar statues. By the time Oklahoma passed a one-drop statute in 1931, there were legal definitions of who was a “negro” throughout the south and in border states, and they often approximated the one-drop rule.

A.D. Powell likes to point to historical examples where white-skinned people with black African ancestors were seen as whites, and she is right that this did sometimes happen. One can find examples of almost any pattern of race relations in this country’s history. Keep in mind that we are talking about tens of thousands of communities, millions of people, and several hundred years. However, the rule is this: in the United States one’s racial membership was historically defined by some (often varying) combination of physical appearance – predominantly skin color – and known ancestry. For example, on June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black and seven-eights white, boarded a “whites only” car of the East Louisiana Railroad. It did not matter that Plessy did not have the appearance of a “black” person; the authorities on the train “knew” him as a black man. Under Louisiana  state law he was classified as a “Negro,” and, thus, required to sit in the "colored" car. When Plessy refused to leave the “white” car he was arrested and jailed. Eventually, his case reached the United States Supreme Court which infamously ruled (Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 1896) that racial segregation in public accommodations, especially railroads, was constitutional. I mention the Plessy case to illustrate three points: (1) In America’s past, people have been “legally” assigned to the “black” category by authorities; (2) Plessy’s racial membership was socially constructed independent of his appearance; and, (3) Fair or not, society’s conceptualization of his race trumped any self-definition that Plessy had. A.D. Powell is unwilling to concede this last point.

Both A .D. Powell and I agree that the one-drop rule has a racist origin; however, she argues that blacks have played a prominent, actually dominant, role in perpetuating the one-drop rule. She claims that blacks have long forced white-skinned people with black ancestry to identify themselves as blacks. I believe that is an exaggeration of the power that blacks had in the United States. The truth is, for much of this country’s history the one-drop rule was enforced by whites. Yes, a person with the phenotype of whites but black ancestry could move to a different location and “pass” for white.  However, the fact that he or she had to keep his or her black ancestry secret for risk of being socially discredited by whites indicates that whites not only created the racial hierarchy, but also decided who would benefit from being on the highest rungs. White and black were not only racial categories, they were economic categories (bankers versus sharecroppers), political categories (the right to vote and hold office versus being politically disenfranchised), and social categories (those seen as normal and those seen as deviants). Being white meant having a chance at the social goodies: power, prestige, and property. A.D. Powell should be aware that many blacks encouraged their white-looking relatives and friends to “pass” as white so they could have a “white man’s chance” at success.  A.D. Powell argues that blacks claimed multiracial whites as their own for several nefarious reasons: (1) to elevate the status of the black group by claiming high achieving multiracial whites, for example, Jean Toomer, the writer, and Charles Drew, the scientist; (2) to gain political clout by increasing the number of blacks; and (3) to grant blacks sexual access to white-skinned people.

A.D. Powell has become infamous for her rants against blacks. It is possible that these rants result, in part, from her frustration with the NAACP and similar groups that opposed multiracial categories being added to census forms. That would be a principled frustration. However, it is also possible that A.D. Powell has embraced and internalized some of the thinking that undergirds white privilege in this country. Her writings, regrettably, do not attack the legitimacy of a system that assigns privilege based on white skin color. Instead, she argues that blacks are stopping multiracial whites from getting the privileges long-associated with white skin color.

With the end of the Jim Crow era, race has been increasingly losing its power as a master status, that is, a person's race trumps all characteristics, identities, or other statuses. Today, the people that A.D. Powell calls multiracial whites can live as whites and, in most quarters, there is no loss of social or political capital if their black African ancestry is discovered.

Multiracial activists like A.D. Powell are, in effect, arguing for new definitions of race and racial categories. These arguments and debates will – and should – continue as the United States experiences increased numbers of interracial marriages and sexual unions. As a sociologist who studies race, I find these developments fascinating. There are millions of “white” Americans – phenotypically or otherwise – who have a black African ancestor, and are psychologically and culturally white. A more interesting issue involves the tan-, beige-, and mocha-colored relatives who also want to claim their white heritage and, in some instances, want to be considered whites.

On a personal note, I am a mixed-race, black-identified person who wishes that skin color had the same significance as shoe size. I wish that mixed-race advocates were fighting to change a system that rewards lighter skin, instead of trying to gain greater benefits from the system. But, alas, I understand that people choose their own struggles.


February 2009 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

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