Hypodescent is the practice of determining the lineage of a child of mixed race ancestry by assigning the child the race of his or her more socially subordinate parent. Because recent history shows Caucasians being socially dominant in the Western world, mixed race children are most commonly assigned to their non-Caucasian parent. However when two non-Caucasian parents have a child, the child is typically not assigned to either race. Although mulattos and Blasians are both half Black, only the former are generally perceived as Black, while Blasians such as Tiger Woods are not forced to self-identify as Black. The opposite of hypodescent is hyperdescent.

The American practice of applying a rule of hypodescent began its development in the colonies in the 1600s largely in response to the American context of slavery: a mixed-race child was likely to have a mother who was a slave and a father who was a slave master or owner. See Hickman, 1175-1176. In its most extreme form in the United States, hypodescent came to be a "one drop rule," meaning that if a person had one drop of black blood, he was considered to be black. See One-drop theory. An example was Virginia’s 1924 Act for the "Preservation of Racial Integrity," which defined as white a person with "no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian."

Anti-Miscegenation marriage laws[]

By the early 1940s, of the thirty U.S. states that had anti-miscegenation laws, seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia ) had adopted the One-drop theory for rules prohibiting interracial marriages. (Finkelman, “The Color of Law,” 955, note 96). Other states applied the hypodescent rule without carrying it to the "one-drop" extreme, using instead a blood quantum standard. For example, Utah's anti-miscegenation law (first passed in 1888 as part of an anti-polygamy marriage law passed by the then non-Mormon legislature; it was repealed in 1963) prohibited marriage between a white and anyone considered a negro, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Mongolian, or member of "the Malay race" (here referring to Filipinos). No restrictions were placed on marriages between people that were not "white persons."

Other examples of application of hypodescent & other methods of determining lineage[]
  • In the United States, hypodescent has been consistently used to determine the race of children of mixed race couples where one of the parents was classified as "black". That practice seems to be diminishing at least a little. Hypodescent has been applied less consistently in the United States to other "races" (such as in intermarriage between whites and Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, etc.).

Hypodescent and evolution[]

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, observes in passing that in the United States and England children with one "black" parent/grandparent/great-grandparent are consistently classified as "black" instead of "mixed race" or "white" or something else (402-403). He opines that this may be a cross-cultural practice with a biological basis; that perhaps humans are genetically wired to do this. See Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 401-02.

References in culture[]

In the musical Show Boat, a white boy in love with a mulatto woman is accused by the sheriff of violating the state's anti-miscegenation laws. The white boy promptly pricks the woman's finger with a knife, swallows a drop of blood, then tells the sheriff "I'm no white man -- I've got negro blood in me" The sheriff lets him off.

In the novel Pudd'n'head Wilson, by Mark Twain, the character of Roxy is deemed "Negro", even though she could pass for white. This characteristic is passed on (mistakenly) to her "son" Chambers.


  • Finkelman, “The Color of Law,” Northwestern University Law Review, Spring, 1992, Vol. 87, 955, note 96.
  • Christine B. Hickman, "The Devil and the One Drop Rule: Racial Categories, African Americans, and the U.S. Census," Michigan Law Review, Vol: 95, March, 1997, 1175-1176.
  • Thomas e. Skidmore, Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (Durham: Duke University press, 1993)
  • Ian F. Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (NY: New York University Press: 1996)
  • Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 401-02.

See also[]

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