I’m black and I’m proud of being black. I was born black and I’ll die black, and I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand”, Kamala Harris said in an interview in response to claims by conservatives that she was not black enough to qualify as being black because her parents were Jamaican and Indian therefore she does not have slave blood.
Some went on to say that she is actually the descendant of a slave owner to prove their point. But so was Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and social reformer and he was considered black.
Any time a black person aspires to greatness, their blackness is questioned because according to the narrative, greatness or excellence is the exclusive preserve and privilege of white people.
For example, when Obama stood for president in 2008, his blackness was questioned by those who claimed that he was brought up in privilege by a white mother and, therefore, did not suffer under poverty.
Conversely, when a black person is involved in something negative such as a robbery, nobody questions his blackness because that conforms to the narrative. When Obama assumed office as president, conservatives who did not like some of his policies described him as “that black man who is destroying our country.”
The centuries-old “one-drop rule” assigning minority status to mixed-race individuals appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorisation of people such as Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, Halle Berry and now Kamala Harris. We still tend to see biracials not as equal members of both parent groups, but as belonging more to their minority parent group.
In the United States, the “one-drop rule”, also known as hypodescent, dates back to a 1662 Virginia law on the treatment of mixed-race individuals. The cultural entrenchment of American traditional racial hierarchy assigned the highest status to whites, followed by Asians, with Latinos and Africans at the bottom. Here in Kenya, the British assigned whites at the very top, followed by Goans, Indians, Arabs, and Africans a distant bottom.
The “one-drop rule” became codified into some States in the early 1900s and it was associated with the principle of “invisible blackness” that developed after the long history of racial interaction in the South, which had included the hardening of slavery as a racial caste and later segregation.
Interracial relationships, forced, as in slave masters with their black female slaves, or voluntary, were common before and during the centuries of slavery.
In the antebellum years, free people of mixed race (free people of colour) were considered legally white if individuals had less than one-eighth or one-quarter African descent (depending on the state). Many mixed-race people were absorbed into the majority culture based purely on appearance, associations and carrying out community responsibilities.
Although racial segregation was adopted legally by the southern states of the former Confederacy in the 1800s legislators were careful in defining race by law as part of preventing interracial marriages.
In 1895, Senator George D Tillman from South Carolina observed. “It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of coloured blood. It would be a cruel injustice and source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid a marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood. The doors would be open to scandal, malice and greed.”
Earlier in 1853, during a debate on the matter, a reader wrote in the Charlottesville newspaper; “If the one-drop rule were adopted, I doubt not, if many who are reputed to be white, and are in fact so, do not, in a very short time find themselves instead of being elevated, reduced by the judgement of a court of competent jurisdiction, to the level of a free Negro.”
The legislators agreed and no such laws were passed until 1924 in some states, aided by fading memories of such familial histories.
In 20th Century America, the concept of one-drop rule has been applied primarily by white Americans to those of sub-Saharan Africa black ancestry, when some whites were trying to maintain a degree of covert or overt white supremacy.
This rule had the undesirable consequence that many mixed-race people, of diverse ancestry, were simply seen as African-American, and their more diverse ancestors forgotten and erased, making it difficult to accurately trace ancestry in modern times.
It was codified during the Jim Crow racial segregation era and was intended to enforce disenfranchisement of blacks politically by denying them voting rights, as well as economically and socially.
Most of these laws were either repealed or abolished during the civil rights era in the 1960s but their impact can still be felt even today.
Strangely enough, other diasporans such as Black Cubans, Jamaicans, Domincans and, Haitians place their nationality above race in their respective countries even though, they too, are descendants of slaves.
In America, blacks identify by colour first, not by country. But this was a distinction given to them by whites who owned slaves in America. It was a systematic, purposeful differentiation meant to take away a black persons’ worth and deny him white privilege. Fundamentally, the adaptation of race over nationality stripped away the contribution of enslaved black people in America.
The case of Kamala Harris reveals that hypodescent against blacks remains a relatively powerful force in America.