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In societies that regard some races of people as dominant or superior and others as subordinate or inferior, hypodescent is the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union or mating between members of different socioeconomic groups or ethnic groups to the subordinate group.[1] The opposite practice is hyperdescent, in which children are assigned to the race that is considered dominant or superior.

Parallel practices include patrilineality, matrilineality and cognatic descent, which assign race according to the father, mother, or some combination, without regard to the race of the other parent. These systems may not be mutually exclusive with hypo- and hyper-descent, since either parent (or both) might be of mixed race.

Attempts to limit (or eliminate) mixed-race populations by legal means are detailed in Anti-miscegenation laws and Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.


While customs, practices and systems of belief emphasising the value of purity of descent are arguably as old as mankind few societies systematically codified them, or legally enforced their outcome, the effect being more at the level of communal behaviour. Such was the case in classical Greece – which made clear distinctions between Greeks and Barbarians – as distinct from the Roman Republic which despite being expansionist, militarily and culturally aggressive actively encouraged the Romanisation of client kingdoms, which included making their elite citizens of Rome as reward and as exemplars.

Hypo/hyperdescent in 19th–20th century Europe and United States[edit]

Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau (14 July 1816 – 13 October 1882) a French aristocrat, novelist and man of letters famous for developing the theory of the Aryan master race is credited as being the father of modern racial demography. His work An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races proposed the superiority the Aryan race and lobbied for cultural and racial purity. Together with Houston Stewart Chamberlain (9 September 1855 – 9 January 1927), an English-born German author whose works presaged völkischen antisemitism, is considered an early exponent of scientific racism. Gobineau's contemporary Madison Grant (November 19, 1865 – May 30, 1937) published The Passing of the Great Race in 1916. In this work he lamented the perceived decline in 'racial hygiene' caused by increasing levels of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe (as opposed to Western and Northern Europe) citing the 'racial history' of Europe as evidence and argument that race is the basis of civilization.

Seizing on these and other, similar works Adolf Hitler laid out plans for the transformation of Germany into a race-based society driven by his (self-evident) belief in an international conspiracy for world domination in which the Jews were mortal enemies of the German people. One instrument was the concept of a Volksgemeinschaft ("people's community") aimed at uniting all Germans while excluding all those identified as aliens. At a Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg leading Nazi physician Gerhard Wagner announced that the government would soon introduce a "law for the protection of German blood". The next day, Hitler summoned officials and directed to prepare a draft law forbidding sexual relations or marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

The Nuremberg Laws passed on 15 September 1935 were The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour that prohibited marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans and forbade the employment of German females under 45 in Jewish households, and the Reich Citizenship Law declared that only those of German or related blood could be considered citizens, while all others were classified as 'state subjects' bereft of the rights accorded to Germans in the Reich.

This race-based qualification was codified and quantified by tables of descent that assigned specific terminology derived by calculation of ancestry 'by eighths'. These categories decided the rights – or lack thereof – which any person would be permitted under Nazi rule. In the following years an additional 13 supplementary laws were promulgated that further marginalised the Jewish community in Nazi Germany and effectively removed all rights from those considered racially inferior, up to and including denial of the right to life.

Hypo/hyperdescent in Colonial Era United States[edit]

The American practice of applying a rule of hypodescent began during colonial times when indentured servants and transported convicts working at the direction of the colonists and colonial authorities were joined by Africans that from 1619 on were first taken first from Spanish and then more and more from English or British slave ships. But while the freed captives were Christians, these individuals were classified as indentured workers. It was not until 1705 that Virginia formally enacted a 'slave code' but evidence from the 1650s that some Virginia Negroes were serving lifelong terms and ten years later the Assembly stated that "any English servant that shall run away in company with any Negroes who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of time shall serve for the time of the said Negroes absence" indicating Negroes could not 'make satisfaction' by serving longer if recaptured. While this device gave legal status to the practice of lifetime enslavement of persons of African descent and in subsequent statutes the conditions of a lifetime of servitude were delineated, a mere decade later Elizabeth Key fought and won the first freedom suit in Virginia, arguing her English father had acknowledged her as his daughter, had her baptised, established a legal guardian to care for her after his death and arranged an indenture for her as a girl specifically in order to protect her rights as a mixed-race woman.

However, following her victory Virginia established the principle of partus sequitur ventrem (the ancient Roman dictum that all children born to slave mothers were slaves regardless of paternity) in subsequent legislation, doing so in direct contradiction to the English common law that had up to that point – at least in theory – underpinned the passing legislature's legitimacy.

While the history of slavery during the intervening two and a half centuries is a fascinating field of study it is beyond the scope of this article, but not so the development of strict legal definitions with application to race theory after the end of slavery

Hypo/hyperdescent in 20th century United States[edit]

In the early years of the 20th century Democrats regained power in southern states and used their political supremacy to pass disfranchising legislation, constitutional amendments and the so-called Jim Crow laws, by which race-based social practices including segregation was legally enforced.

States enacted laws classifying persons as black based on any traceable evidence (or perception of any African ancestry). For example, in 1822, in Virginia a person with one quarter African ancestry (equivalent to one grandparent) was considered legally white while under the same state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 the 'One-drop' rule defined as black a person with any known African ancestry regardless of any number of intervening generations.

The same Act established a binary classification system for vital records, classifying persons as 'white' or 'black', which was effectively a 'catch all' clause: it was this category into which Native Americans were placed, a clear indication of the then-prevalent local attitude to all races other than white.

The Southern author Mary Chesnut wrote in her famous A Diary from Dixie of the Civil War-era about the hypocrisy of a woman's recognizing white men's children among the slaves in every household but her own.

Fanny Kemble, the British actress who married an American slaveholder, wrote about her observations of slavery as well, including the way white men used slave women and left their mixed-race children enslaved.

Sometimes the white fathers freed the children and/or their mothers, or provided education or apprenticeship, or settled property on them in a significant transfer of social capital.

Notable antebellum examples were the fathers of Charles Henry Langston and John Mercer Langston and the father of the Healy family of Georgia. Other mixed-race children were left enslaved; some were sold away by their fathers.[2]

Research by historians and genealogists has shown that unlike the above examples, most African Americans free in Virginia and nearby states in the colonial period were descended from relationships between white women, indentured servant or free, and African or African-American men, indentured servant, free or slave. This reflected the fluid nature of relationships among the working classes before slave rules were made strict. Because the mothers were white, the children were free born. By the turn of the nineteenth century, many free African Americans, along with European-American neighbors, migrated to frontier areas of Virginia, North Carolina, and then further west. Such families sometimes settled in insular groups and were the origin of some isolated settlements, which have long claimed or were said to be of American Indian or Portuguese ancestry.[3]

In its most extreme form in the United States, hypodescent was the basis of the "one drop rule", meaning that if an individual had any black ancestry, the person was classified as black. Laws were passed in southern states and others long after the end of slavery to define white and black, under associated laws for segregation: Tennessee adopted such a "one-drop" statute in 1910; Louisiana; Texas; Arkansas in 1911; Mississippi in 1917; North Carolina in 1923; Virginia in 1924; Alabama and Georgia in 1927; and Oklahoma in 1931.

During this same period, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Utah retained their old "blood fraction" statutes de jure, but amended these fractions (one-sixteenth, one-thirtysecond) to be equivalent to one-drop de facto.[4]

By 1924 many "white" people in Virginia would have had some African and/or Native American ancestry but at the same time that Virginia was trying to harden racial caste, African Americans were organizing to overturn segregation and regain civil rights, that had been lost to Jim Crow laws and disfranchisement of the majority of the black community.

Established in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took the lead in filing lawsuits to overturn such provisions.

Anti-miscegenation marriage laws[edit]

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.[5] This was part of a continuing social hardening of racial lines after the turn of the century, when southern states imposed legal segregation and disfranchised African Americans.

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 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 who were not "white persons". The law was repealed in 1963.

Other examples of application[edit]

In the United States, hypodescent is used to define the race of children of mixed-race couples where one of the parents is classified as "black" or either is considered to have any trace of African descent. That practice seems to be diminishing; however, a recent and very prominent example of this is President of the United States Barack Obama, who is often referred to as the first Black or African-American President, even though his mother was Caucasian. Additionally, since the 1960s particularly and the rise of the Black Power movement, many members of the African-American community have insisted that all mixed-race individuals should be identified as black if they have any African-American ancestry.

In the US, people less consistently apply hypodescent in intermarriage between whites and other race groups, such as Native Americans, and Asians.


Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, observes in passing that in the United States and Great Britain, societies have developed something like "genetic dominance" in our use of language to identify children from mixed race unions. He notes first, that people seem to be eager to embrace racial classification, even when talking about people of obviously mixed parentage; and second, that we tend not to describe people as of mixed race. Mixed-race children of European-African unions tend to be identified as "black", in what Dawkins calls a "cultural or memetic dominant".[6]:401-03 He opines that this may be a cross-cultural practice with a biological basis; that perhaps humans are genetically wired to recognize and differentiate among minor superficial differences, in contrast to what we share in our "unusually high level of genetic uniformity in the human species".[6]:405 It is difficult to say what evolutionary purpose such differentiation served; perhaps it contributed to group solidarity when groups lived further apart in different regions and were divided by many cultural factors. He suggests that such differentiation may be an "information-rich way to classify people".[6]:408

References in culture[edit]

In the novel Pudd'nhead 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.

In the book Hypodescent - Discovering You Are Not Black: A Memoir the author, an adoptee, describes how he was classified as African American at birth because of his phenotype. Later in life he would realize he does not have any sub-saharan ancestry at all.

The US late 19th century author Charles Chesnutt, of mixed European and African heritage, wrote numerous stories set in the post-Civil War South about the social issues related to the choices of people of color.

In the musical Show Boat, a white man in love with a mulatto woman is accused by the sheriff of violating the state's anti-miscegenation laws. The white man 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.

Sinclair Lewis's novel Kingsblood Royal uses hypodescent and the "one drop" principle as principal plot elements.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kottak, Conrad Phillip. "Chapter 11: Ethnicity and Race." Mirror for Humanity a Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 238. Print.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, accessed 15 Feb 2008
  4. ^ Pauli Murray, ed. States' Laws on Race and Color (Athens, 1997), 428, 173, 443, 37, 237, 330, 463, 22, 39, 358, 77, 150, 164, 207, 254, 263, 459.
  5. ^ Finkelman, "The Color of Law", Northwestern University Law Review, Spring, 1992, Vol. 87, 955, note 96.
  6. ^ a b c Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)
  • David A. Hollinger, "Amalgamation and Hypodescent: The Question of Ethnoracial Mixture in the History of the United States," American Historical Review, Vol. 108., No. 5 (Dec. 2003): 1363-90.
  • Pierre Savy, « Transmission, identité, corruption. Réflexions sur trois cas d’hypodescendance », L’homme. Revue française d’anthropologie, 182, 2007 (« Racisme, antiracisme et sociétés »), p. 53-80.