Academic Minute
11:08 am
Tue July 12, 2011

Prof. Daniel Sharfstein, Vanderbilt University - Race and the History of "Passing"

Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Professor Daniel Sharfstein of Vanderbilt University looks at the long history of racial assimilation in the United States and why racial categories prove ambiguous at best.

Daniel Sharfstein is an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, TN. He has published multiple works on the African-American experience and the permeable nature of the racial divide in American history. His most recent publication on the subject is The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.

He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School where he served as Senior Editor of the Yale Law Journal. His research on race in the American South won him a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship and he was the inaugural recipient of the Raoul Berger Visiting Fellowship in Legal History at Harvard Law School.

Learn more about Professor Sharfstein and his research.

Professor Daniel Sharfstein - Race and the History of "Passing"

From the colonial era until well into the twentieth century, people descended from African slaves were continually assimilating into white communities. The phenomenon is commonly called "passing for white," and it is one of the great hidden narratives of the American experience, a mass migration that was covered up even as it was happening. There has always been evidence of this migration in the historical record. And thanks to technological advances the emergence of searchable genealogy databases and DNA ancestry testing more and more Americans are discovering that this is their heritage, and that race was never as simple as black and white.

Some of the most revealing sources for understanding how individuals and families were able to move across the color line and some of the most important sources are legal cases dating back to slavery and segregation in which courts had to determine whether people were black or white. Laws distinguishing black from white often became occasions for people to challenge their racial designation.

Dozens of cases reveal how rules discriminating against blacks not only kept African Americans as second-class citizens, but also gave thousands of people powerful incentives to cross the color line. Moreover, courts made it difficult to reclassify people who had been living as white despite evidence of black ancestry. If the courts took too hard a line, then countless whites would have been vulnerable to reclassification, and the social fabric of the South would unravel.

The tragic irony of this is that by making white communities secure in their status by minimizing the worry that they could be reclassified the courts enabled the South to commit all the more to segregation, white supremacy, and the idea of white racial purity.

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