How Many People Passed?

Henry Louis Gates just posted a fascinating article on his website “The Root” that attempts to answer the age old question of how widespread black-to-white passing has been in the United States.  Over the years, various observers before have attempted the challenge of counting the uncountable: coming up with a numerical total for what was a quintessentially veiled activity.  Sociologists working in the early twentieth century, comparing the actual count of African Americans in the census with the expected count, computed that some 25,000 blacks were passing every year.  Walter White of the NAACP, who often passed (temporarily) to investigate lynchings in the South, estimated in the 1940s that the total was closer to 12,000.  Other commentators admitted that “[n]o one, of course, can estimate the number of men and women with Negro blood who have thus ‘gone over to white,’” although they hastened to add that “the number must be large.”

Now, Gates et al. have injected science into the conversation and come up with some potentially startling answers.  By looking at genetic markers, a group of researchers at “23 and me” concluded that roughly 4% of U.S.-born “whites” had in fact acquired some African ancestry in the last two hundred years.  Gates doesn’t attempt a year by year breakdown, so for the mathematically challenged like myself, it is hard to compare his numbers to the earlier counts above.  But based on the 2010 census, this means that some 7,872,702 “whites” in the U.S. have recent African-American ancestry and thus by the relentless logic of the “one drop” rule, should be considered “black.”  By any measure, this number is staggeringly large and suggests how widespread the phenomenon truly was.  Moreover, many, if not most of these “black whites” (not sure what else to call them), presumably have no knowledge of their African heritage, which speaks to the ways in which those who passed often attempted to hide the fact from some of those closest to them: their children.


Gates doesn’t discuss the scientific methods used to determine the genetic markers of African ancestry, but you can read more about the findings here.


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