By Shari Dworkin and Kari Lerum

In a recent post, we discussed the case of a Louisiana justice of the peace who refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple. In the words of the Justice, he “just doesn’t believe the races should mix that way.”  The Justice explained that since, in his mind, neither “black society” nor “white society” readily accepts offspring of such relationships, his refusal to marry black/white couples was purely out of concern for the couple’s future children. In that post we suggested a connection between this case and the “one drop rule,” an historical justification for race-based slavery in the U.S.

In this post we elaborate on the history of this rule, how it underscores the social construction of race, and how this rule provides an historical basis for intertwining racial and sexual inequality. We will also briefly elaborate on assumptions undergirding the “mixing of races” and “harm to children” comments.

“One Drop” and Racial Categories drops of blood

For readers unfamiliar with the “one drop rule,”  this refers to how U.S. courts and law books historically declared that a mixed race person with “one black ancestor” or “one drop of black blood” should be categorized/viewed/treated as black. The rule shows us the arbitrary nature of racial classifications. In their  book,  Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960’s to the 1990s, Michael Omi & Howard Winant describe how even a “drop” of “black blood” was difficult to define (is it 1/32 of “negro blood?” 1/20th? less? more?):

“…in 1982-1983, Susie Guillory Phipps unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records to change her racial classification from black to white. The descendant of an 18th century white planter and a black slave, Phipps was designated as “black” on her birth certificate in accordance with a 1970 state law that declared anyone with at least 1/32 “Negro blood” to be black.”

Omi and Winant go on to say that:

“The Phipps case raised intriguing questions about the concept of race, its meaning in contemporary society and its use (and abuse) in public policy…Phipps’ attorney argued that the assignment of racial categories on birth certificates was unconstitutional and that the 1/32nd designation was inaccurate. He called on a retired Tulane professor who cited research indicating that most Louisiana whites have at least 1/20th “Negro” ancestry” (1994, p. 53).

It is fascinating that this interracial marriage case originates from same state as the Phipps legal case. It is clear that Justice of the Peace Bardwell is assuming that there are two distinct, dichotomously different biological races. Perhaps he doesn’t come out and say it, but he may also be assuming that the value of the races are not equal (otherwise what blood mixing is there to fear?). His assessment of “racial mixing” and “black” and “white” groups isn’t even an accurate assessment of the “purity” of groups that actually exist biologically, nor does it recognize the very strong role of the social realm in shaping these (see Omi and Winant’s book for several other examples of how race is immanently social). Biologists now agree, in many cases that there is little to no biological basis for race.  Social scientists share this view, and Lewis (2006) reports that “it has been demonstrated that 85.4% of genetic variation occurs within racial groups and 8.3% occurs between population groups within a race; only 6.3 % of genetic variance occurs between racial groups” (he cites Braun, 2002; Lewontin, 1972).

“One Drop” as a tool of Racism

The second issue we’d like to underscore is how the one drop rule was deployed during slavery to classify anyone with one black ancestor as “black” and hence, a “slave.” What’s the link to sexuality? Let’s return to the discussion of miscegenation laws prohibiting Black-White marriages.

As noted by Lewis (2006, p 238):

“Although these laws were largely found in the South and were enforced largely among Black-White unions, they were more often enforced when Black men attempted to marry White women.”

In the contemporary case that we are examining, isn’t it interesting that we’re discussing the desire for a Black man and a White woman to marry? The reason for the sexual policing of couples by deploying the boundaries of race is due to ideologies of racial inferiority and the ways that whites enforce racist control. Again, citing Lewis (2006, p. 238):

“Explanations of the evolution of the black race and social policy based on these explanations fell into two broad streams during this [the anti-miscegenation] period: accommodationist racists, who believed that blacks were at a lower stage of evolutionary development and, with proper caretaking, could progress and eventually join (white) society; and competitive racists, who believed that change was not possible for blacks and segregation was necessary to preserve the achievements of the white race” (parenthesis added).

Another connection between deploying the boundaries of race (and racism) and sexuality is this: During slavery, when white masters and their sons regularly had sexual access to black female slaves (e.g. often rape, but sometimes consensual)-the mulatto children that resulted from these sexual encounters–were frequently considered black– and in turn, the masters often declared these children slaves.

Indeed, the courts have ebbed and flowed on the definition of “black” and firmed up the definition of black when they experienced fears of slave rebellions. In fact, without fears of slave rebellions, mulattos were set free from the institution of slavery in some instances. However, when fears emerged that slaves might rebel, support faded for defining mulattos as “in between black and white” and support rose to define mulattos as black. Similar debates related to “racial mixing” were also raised during Nazi Germany and during the Apartheid Era in South Africa.

Racial definitions/classifications and their relationship to sexuality and social oppression continue to haunt American history. As do fears of the “offspring” that result from inter-racial relationships. The Louisiana Justice of the peace doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the times in an endless number of ways. Jay Leno hit it on the head with his recent joke about this case:

“What are people afraid of? That mixed race kids will become President of the United States?”


Braun, L. (2002) Race, ethnicity, and health: Can genetics explain disparities? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 45, 159‑174.

Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.

Lewis, L. (2006). Race and Sexuality. Pps 229-264 in  R.D. McAnulty & M.M. Burnette (Eds.), Sex and Sexuality: Trends and Controversies. Westport: Praeger.

Lewontin, R. C. (1972). The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology, 6, 381-98.