Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
“One Drop of Blood” by Scott L. Malcomson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 544 pages; $30) In his concurrence in Adarand Constructors v. Pena, Justice Antonin Scalia asserted that “in the eyes of government, we are just one race here. It is American.” Well, not exactly. In the current census, the government gave us each a choice of identifying with one of an unprecedented 63 racial groups: six “minimum race categories” — American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; White; or Other — and 57 different two-, three-, four-, five-, or six-race combinations. On top of that, we were each asked whether we considered ourselves Hispanic or Latino or Not Hispanic or Latino. So when Tiger Woods identifies himself as a “Cablinasian” — a word he apparently invented to express the fact that his forebears were Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian, he’s just using a personal shorthand for one of 15 governmentally envisioned four-race possibilities. The way Americans have constructed racial identities — both for themselves and for others — is the subject of Scott L. Malcomson’s “One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race.” The title refers to the notorious, and uniquely American, practice that treated a person as black if she had even a single African American ancestor: As the Oklahoma Supreme Court explained in its 1924 decision in Miller v. Allen, which involved the question of whether a land sale could be voided because the plaintiff was an Indian, “if slavery were in force at this time, Annie Miller, the plaintiff, would be a slave. One drop of slave blood taints the stream and makes it African in its descent.” And yet, Annie Miller was not simply a black person. She was also a citizen of the Creek Nation of Indians. Her maternal grandmother had been a black slave of the Creek Nation; a white-run federal government, having emancipated her, later enrolled Annie as a Creek citizen on the rolls of freedmen. Malcomson’s point is that race has had tremendously complex and changeable meanings in our history. Rather than a straightforward narrative, he offers a series of four accounts of the way Americans have seen themselves and each other. The first three are loosely organized around the idea of the Indian, blackness, and whiteness. The final one tells the story of Malcomson’s own experiences, growing up as a white boy in multiracial, and racially charged, Oakland, and then tracing his own family’s racial history back to his first American ancestor’s arrival on Roanoke Island (now part of North Carolina) in 1587. While this organization is sometimes repetitive or frustrating, it drives home many of the book’s central themes: the tortuous, erratic evolution of racial ideas and identities in America; the tangled connection between positive and negative images of race; the way in which racial identity is often constructed as much in reaction to the perceived characteristics of other racial groups as out of a conception of what membership in one’s own group means; and the oscillation among impulses for separatism, assimilation, and integration. Although written for a general audience, “One Drop of Blood” is not an easy read. In places, Malcomson’s prose is dense or overblown. And sometimes his parallels seem forced. For example, one of the ways Malcomson ties the first three sections of the book together is by framing each with reportage on racial identity in contemporary Oklahoma, a state Malcomson describes as a “laboratory of separatism” and “a small world of human flight.” But his choice of Oklahoma subjects seems to stack the deck. “An Indian Country” is framed by conversations with Cherokee nationalist David Cornsilk, who offers a nuanced account of tribal identity. Velma Ashley and Millie Coleman may be less representative of the African American experience: They live in one of Oklahoma’s all-black towns, but they, too, express complex and perceptive views of black-white relations. By contrast, Malcomson frames the chapters on the idea of whiteness with an account of indicted white separatists in Elohim City preparing for the coming race war. This choice may strike readers as so contrived that they will cast the book aside. That would be a shame, since “One Drop of Blood” will reward readers who immerse themselves in its combination of telling historical detail and trenchant observation. For example, consider the question: Who is an Indian? We learn that there is no easy answer. In the beginning, the question itself made little sense. When European explorers and settlers first arrived on the North American continent, they didn’t meet “Indians;” they confronted Cherokees and Creeks and Narragansetts and Pequots. Malcomson explains how both colonists and natives came to think of indigenous people as sharing a common, racially defined, and immutable identity. He describes the alternative possibilities discarded along the way: a truly egalitarian multiracial society; a society in which tribal identity was chosen, rather than hereditary; a society in which other characteristics were far more prominent than race. In the twentieth century, Indian identity has involved a complex mixture of governmental, tribal, and individual decision-making. Malcomson explores in rich detail how one tribe, the Cherokees, navigated shifting notions of race and Indian identity. The Cherokee Nation limits membership to descendants of individuals enrolled in the tribe by the turn-of-the-century Dawes Commission. In fact, it may be otherwise impossible to recognize a Cherokee, since there are no necessary physical or social characteristics that distinguish them from their non-Cherokee neighbors. Similarly, intermarriage and assimilation mean that the “Pequots loo[k] just like America.” And Malcomson describes some interesting shifts in how the Census Bureau has determined race. From 1910 to 1950, census enumerators assigned racial identities to the individuals they surveyed. When it came to mixed-race individuals, they were directed to round downward within the implicit racial hierarchy: A person who had both white and Indian blood was to be treated as an Indian unless he was “regarded as a white person in the community in which he lives,” while a person of mixed Indian and black blood was treated as black, “unless the Indian blood predominates and the status as an Indian is generally accepted in the community.” But starting in 1960, individuals were asked to self-report their race. In every census since then, the number of people identifying themselves as Indians has skyrocketed: by 46 percent in 1960 — which perhaps could be ascribed simply to the greater accuracy of self-reported data — and by 51 percent in 1970, 72 percent in 1980, and 38 percent in 1990. Surely these later increases are more a product of changed social attitudes about being an Indian than increased accuracy in determining a fixed quantity. Malcomson points to a paradox at the heart of modernity: We are hostile to inherited social status (for example, aristocratic privilege) and yet we champion the idea of “an inherited racial identity for whites, blacks, and Indians.” Perhaps the new fluidity of race in a time of self-identification is yet another sign we’re now in a postmodern era. Or, as Malcomson ironically notes: “One of the many miracles of racial identity is that it can change.” And yet, one of the central lessons of “One Drop of Blood” is that while we can struggle with our racial past, we cannot fully escape it. This is not a book about the law. Although it occasionally refers to legal sources, “One Drop of Blood “relies far more heavily on historical and literary evidence; Jim Crow, the character in minstrel shows, receives more sustained attention than Jim Crow, the legal institution of de jure racial segregation. But Malcomson suggests that the rhetoric of color blindness paradoxically has its antecedents in the very notions of white superiority. Originally, the preferred descriptors for free people did not rely on race at all. They referred to nationality, religion, or social status within the community. Whiteness emerged essentially as a reaction to the creation of other racial identities: To be white was to be not black or not Indian. Later European immigrants would be urged to give up their racial identities as Irishmen or Germans or Italians — something Indians and blacks could not do. And nineteenth-century forms of color blindness often explicitly sought a world that would be “race-free” because blacks would be repatriated to Africa. Thus, Malcomson notes that “a white person might tell himself he had no race, and the world around him, if only by its silence, would probably do nothing to threaten his personal decision. A person not white, making the same decision, would face disbelief at best… . Blacks, slave or free, had a sharp historical experience of the meanings of race, most of which had operated against them… . To be told by a white person that one’s racial experience had no great importance as such, and ought to be shed in the name of God and universal humanity, might reasonably have been regarded as a dismissal of one’s life.” Given this historical experience, “a purely principled approach to race has impossibilities all its own, which in principled minds may create a pressure that could be relieved by making one’s principle so large as to crowd out historical reality.” “One Drop of Blood” is a rich, thoughtful examination of the many roles that race has played in American life. It is both panoramic and interestingly incomplete. Aside from descriptions of early Spanish-Indian encounters and a brief account of how the framers of the California Constitution decided to deal with Mexican residents, Malcomson essentially ignores Hispanics, who are fast becoming the largest minority group in the United States, and whose frequent treatment as a monolithic group raises interesting potential parallels to the transformation of disparate native tribes into a distinctive Indian people. “One Drop of Blood” is deeply westward-oriented in its focus — it virtually ignores the Deep South after Reconstruction and the northeast after the Harlem Renaissance. It also largely ignores the distinctive experience of Asian Americans, a particularly striking omission given the final chapter’s focus on Oakland. Still, one of the work’s signal virtues is the very way in which it prompts readers to think about unaddressed questions, and to wonder at further parallels and paradoxes. If, as W.E.B. DuBois famously observed, the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line, how much more complicated does the problem become in this millennium, when it concerns three (or four or five or 126) dimensions instead? Pamela S. Karlan is the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School. NEW TITLES IN BRIEF “Shark Tales: True (and Amazing) Stories from America’s Lawyers” by Ron Liebman (Simon & Schuster; $25) A collection of funny and revealing anecdotes about what really happens on both sides of the bar. “Health and Human Rights: A Reader” Edited by Jonathan M. Mann, Sofia Gruskin, Michael A. Grodin, George J. Annas (Routledge; $28) The first comprehensive anthology to explore the connection between human rights and public health. Essays cover such topics as ethnic cleansing, world population policy, and the health effects of environmental pollution. “The Confirmation” by Thomas Powers (Knopf; $25.95) In Powers’ new novel, Frank Cabot, the nominee for director of the CIA, has an unassailable reputation — until a young CIA officer, searching for information about American POWs, unearths a report accusing Cabot of cooperating with the Russians 20 years earlier. The discovery turns Washington into a political circus.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.