Halle Berry custody battle re-opens ‘one drop rule’ debate

OPINION - In America, race has never been a scientific or genealogical designation, but a political and social one...

Halle Berry opened the lid on one of the thorniest issues that still plagues race relations when she went to war with her ex-boyfriend, Gabriel Autry, over custody of their daughter, Nahla. The issue revolves around who is or isn’t African-American. Berry took a firm stand in Ebony magazine and flatly said that she and her daughter are black, citing the “one drop rule” as the reason.

The “one drop rule” that Berry refers to has nothing to do with science, biology, or genealogy. By that I mean the pseudo-scientific designation that no matter how faint or distant in a person’s family’s genealogy — if there’s a person of biological African descent that makes that person black. The one-drop rule was often the law of the land in the early-to-mid twentieth century, most notably in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. This followed the passage of similar laws in numerous other states. However, during slavery, free African-Americans could have up to one-eighth to one-quarter African ancestry (this varied from state to state) and be considered legally white.

[NBCVIDEO source=”UNIWIDGET” video=”http://widgets.nbcuni.com/singleclip/singleclip_v1.swf?CXNID=1000004.08052NXC&WID=4a784acd2b1a7e80&clipID=1288965&wName=The Grio Video Widget” w=”400″ h=”400″]

Before Berry took her stand, the issue of black versus multiracial came up repeatedly with President Obama. The debate was ongoing during the 2008 election (and in some circles continues to this day) over whether he was black, biracial, multiracial, or even American. Obama mercifully put that debate to rest for most Americans when he made it official and checked the box “African-American” on his Census 2010 form.

Still, the arguments are really nonsensical since science has long since debunked the notion of a pure racial type. In America, race has never been a scientific or genealogical designation, but a political and social one. Anyone with the slightest trace of African ancestry was and still is considered black and treated accordingly.

Berry, by unflinchingly saying that she and her daughter are black, and Obama, by self-describing himself as black, effectively recognize the hard and unchanging reality that race relations and conflict in America are still framed in black and white. Berry knows that as her daughter grows up she can still be ignored or given poor service in restaurants, fume in anger as taxis pass her by on the street and stop a few feet away to pick up a white passenger, be followed by security guards in department stores, and be subjected to an array of every overt and subtle type when trying to get a loan, rent an apartment, advance up the corporate ladder — or if she chooses to follow the path of her famous mother, suffer the indignity of being typecast as the sexually loose, boisterous, or angry African-American woman. All because she’s deemed “black.”
Despite the best efforts of some to overlook this still harsh and ugly racial reality in America, many of the approximate 6 million, or 2 percent, of Americans who routinely designate themselves on the Census as multiracial share their own bitter experience with the sting of racial bigotry in the streets and workplace. This is still irrefutable and painful proof that simply checking the multiracial box on the Census is little more than a symbolic exercise in racial correctness.

The majority of African-Americans, overwhelmingly have some near or distant family ancestor who is white, given the rampant sexual abuse of slaves that occurred during that era. Some of the most celebrated African-American icons such as Booker T. Washington, WEB DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and even Martin Luther King, Jr. have well-documented white ancestry. Most blacks, like Berry, recognize this and have avoided pigeonholing themselves as “multiracial.” Their reasons for this range from political to cultural and social. They say that they fear that this will weaken the political clout of African-Americans. Others, like actress Paula Patton, simply say that they feel more comfortable identifying socially and culturally as African-Americans.

However, there’s another side to the contentious issue that Berry raised, and that is it necessarily a bad thing to designate oneself as biracial or multiracial, particularly if their parent is non-African-American? The argument could be made that giving individuals the option of whether to designate themselves as something other than African-American is a healthy step forward in race relations, and in time would free Americans from their rigid, in-the-box stereotypical thinking (and actions) about who is or isn’t black, white, Asian, Hispanic, American-Indian, or the literally dozens of other racial and ethnic mixtures and ancestry in America.

According to census experts there’s no truth to the claim that having large numbers of blacks check off the “multiracial” or other racial designations on the Census form will dilute African-American political numbers or influence or diminish federal funding or resource allocation in urban communities. Some even bristle at the pressure put on blacks of mixed racial parentage to conform to a hard racial standard and designate them as African-American. They call this just another form of discrimination against mixed racial persons.

The issue of race has muscled out the nasty and prolonged custody fight between Berry and Aubry. This is a sad reminder that race still does matter, and matters a lot to many Americans, no matter what they or others call themselves.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on ktym.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson