Who’s White? Who’s Black? Who Knows?

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Children standing in line in gymnasium

Never mind what you’ve heard. Halle Berry was not the first black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She was actually the 74th white one. And never mind all this talk about America electing its first black President;  Barack Obama is actually the 44th white man to hold the job.

That, at any rate, is as fair a conclusion as any, given that Berry and Obama and millions like them are the products of one black parent and one white one. And yet it’s a conclusion that almost no one ever reaches. Part-black generally means all-black in Americans’ minds. Just as part-Asian or part-Hispanic or part-anything-else usually puts individuals in those minority-groups’ camps. Such a curious bias is as old as the nation itself, and a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology illustrates just how stubborn it is — and suggests just what may be behind it. (More on Time.com: They All Look the Same: How Racism Works Neurologically)

It was in 1662 that the colony of Virginia first tried to codify the legal definition of people whose racial pedigree was less than completely pure. To make things simple in a land in which plantation owners were already taking sexual liberties with their slaves, the lawmakers established what they called the “one-drop” rule — also known as hypodescent — declaring that any person with mixed blood who resulted from such a pairing would be assigned the race of the nonwhite parent.

That seemed clear enough, but things got tricky when the nonwhite ancestor was a grandparent or a great-grandparent and the minority blood became increasingly diluted. Creative legislators, however, had answers for that too. The so-called “blood-fraction” laws of 1705 ruled that anyone who was at least 1/8 black — which meant one black great grandparent —  could not be labeled white. A 1911 Arkansas law went further, declaring that citizens would be considered black if they had “any Negro blood whatever.” And if you think that all that is an artifact of a less enlightened time, think again. A 1970 Louisiana law defined as black anyone who had at least 1/32 African-American blood — and in 1985, a state court upheld the legislation. (More on Time.com: How Kids Get Clobbered by Racial Discrimination)

But this much can be said for the folks who wrote such nasty rules: They may have been no better than most other Americans, but they were no worse either, at least in their tendency to apply the hypodescent rule in their own minds, often unconsciously. To test how this phenomenon applies today, a team of Harvard University psychologists led by PhD student Arnold K. Ho gathered a sample group of white, black and Asian volunteers and showed them computer-generated images of individuals designed to look either black-white, Asian-white or some other ethnic mix. They also showed them family trees that depicted various degrees of racial commingling.

Repeatedly, the subjects hypodescended the individuals both in the pictures and in the diagrams, but not always consistently. People who were half-white and half-black or half-white and half-Asian were both typically identified as belonging to their minority parent’s racial group. When the  mix was just one-quarter Asian or one-quarter black, however, the results diverged some, with the one-drop rule being applied more frequently to the quarter-black target images.

When the experimenters used imaging software to adjust the pictures of the mixed-race individuals subtly, the data became even more precise. On a scale of 5% white and 95% black to 95% white and 5% black, the target images generally had to cross the 68% white threshold before subjects identified the people as Caucasian. For Asian-white faces the bar was set lower — but only slightly — at 63%. And perhaps surprisingly, it was not just white subjects who showed this bias; Asians and blacks applied the one-drop rule with about the same frequency. (More on Time.com: Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?)

That last finding may be the most revealing of the study — at least in helping to determine why we assign people the identities we do. Since all humans — and most nonhumans for that matter — identify with their own clan  from infancy, you would think all races would show the same hypodescent bias in favor of their own group. The fact that nearly everyone in a mixed-race society, however, targets the same minority groups for one-drop demotion is a telling indicator that the phenomenon is learned — and powerfully so.

“When we see in our data that our own minds are limited in the perception of [bi-racial people],” says Mahzarin R. Banaji, a Harvard professor of social ethics and a co-author of the study, “we see how far we have to go in order to have an objectively accurate and fair assessment of people.” It’s hard to argue with qualities like fairness and objectivity in our dealings with others. In a nation that’s becoming more multi-cultural and multi-racial by the day, it’s hard to minimize their importance either.

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