How Many ‘White’ People Are Passing?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A report reveals the proportion of Americans with “hidden African ancestry.”

Generic image Thinkstock

How many ostensibly “white” Americans walking around today would be classified as “black” under the one-drop rule? Judging by the last U.S. Census (pdf), 7,872,702. To put that in context, that number is equal to roughly 20 percent, or a fifth, of the total number of people identified as African American (pdf) in the same census count!

In other words, there are a lot of white people with “hidden African ancestry,” and they don’t have to look too far back in time to find it. Yet, paradoxically, their families were able to pass for white relatively quickly. Remember, while we live in an all-access tracking society of Google Earth and FAA imaging today, our light-complexioned ancestors didn’t. All they needed to be able to pass was a tank of gas and a new destination. Their jumping-off point was the color line itself.

A Southern Twist

Also fascinating is what Kasia Bryc revealed about the frequency of “hidden African ancestry” on a state-by-state basis. Some of you will be surprised, others will say, of course!

“Southern states with the highest African American populations tended to have the highest percentages of hidden African ancestry,” Hadly writes of Bryc’s findings. “In South Carolina at least 13 percent of self-identified whites have 1 percent or more African ancestry, while in Louisiana the number is a little more than 12 percent. In Georgia and Alabama the number is about 9 percent. The differences perhaps point to different social and cultural histories within the south.”

If we apply those percentages to the last federal census (pdf), that means 487,253, “white” people in Georgia, 385,156 “white” people in South Carolina, 328,186 in Louisiana and 288,396 in Alabama are actually “black,” according to the one-drop rule. And that is a lot of the white people in these states! (It’s also worth noting that the percentage of “hidden blacks” who self-identify as white in South Carolina—13 percent—is the same as the percentage of people nationwide who self-identified as black in the 2010 U.S. Census.)

Turns out, Dixie isn’t just the land of cotton; it’s the land of “hidden African ancestry,” too. And, for the record, the states highlighted in Hadly’s report on Bryc’s research were among the first to secede from the Union before the Civil War; they also had the highest slave populations recorded in the 1860 U.S. Census. As I wrote in this column last month, “In 1860, slaves made up 57 percent of the population in South Carolina, the highest of any state in the union. Coming in second was Mississippi at 55 percent, followed by Louisiana at 47 percent, Alabama at 45 percent, and Florida and Georgia, both at 44 percent. Perhaps not surprisingly, these were the first six states to secede from the Union following Lincoln’s election. While Southern sympathizers denied that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, Lincoln knew better.”

While the data points are fascinating, on a larger scale, Bryc’s DNA research has the potential to round out the more common narrative we have of African Americans (such as first lady Michelle Obama) discovering that they have white roots (and cousins) tracing back to a common slave-owning ancestor. Twenty-four percent of us do, and I’m no exception. 

But, really, does any of this matter?

The Truth vs. the ‘One-Drop Rule’