A Letter and the Legacy of “Not White” in the USA

With the events of the past months, and as Austin McCoy discussed here on Nursing Clio last week, it should be clear that white privilege is still alive and well in the United States. Despite the optimism following President Obama’s election six years ago, and the Republican Party’s tweets, we do not yet live in a society where the color of your skin doesn’t matter. To make matters worse, while the discussion should be about how best to fix the problems of racial injustice and economic oppression in the United States, substantial numbers of people refuse to even accept that it’s a problem. They prefer to believe that those who suffer from systemic poverty, police violence, and a biased justice system get only what they’ve earned by being lazy, or breaking the law, or acting badly.

This message comes most clearly from pundits like Bill O’Reilly, who continue to argue that white privilege died with the end of legal segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. More than that, they assert that white Americans are the new victims of discrimination. Going after O’Reilly feels like a cliché at this point, but unfortunately his arguments aren’t nearly as fringe as they should be. People who argue that white privilege doesn’t exist often do a few things:

  1. They point out that state-sanctioned slavery and segregation are over.
  2. They use anecdotes to try to prove systemic change, such as that “the most powerful man in the world is a black American, and the most powerful woman in the world — Oprah Winfrey — is black!” (that’s O’Reilly again).
  3. They suggest that people of color who are not African American benefit from policies designed to address the legacy of slavery that also discriminate against white Americans.

All of these arguments assume that more than 300 years of discrimination and racism can be wiped out by one generation’s worth of civil rights protections (and very little effort to address economic equality). The Supreme Court certainly seemed to believe this when they started dismantling the Voting Rights Act. Based on this assumption, they conclude that white privilege no longer exists, and therefore policies designed to break cycles of inequality discriminate against white Americans. For many white-identified Americans, these conclusions make a lot of sense, especially in light of the economic recession.

This assumption, and the denial of white privilege, misunderstand both the depth and the breadth of racial injustice in the United States.

To get a sense of what I mean, let’s step back 90 years to 1924 to glimpse the long and personal echoes of racism in America. In the spring of that year, a new mother in Virginia received a letter from the head of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. It read:

This is to give you warning that this is a mulatto child and you cannot pass it off as white. A new law passed by the last legislature says that if a child has one drop of negro blood in it, it cannot be counted as white. You will have to do something about this matter and see that the child is not allowed to mix with white children, it cannot go to white schools and can never marry a white person in Virginia. It is an awful thing.[1]

Walter Ashby Plecker headed the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. He zealously enforced the state's "racial integrity" law. (Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch.)
Walter Ashby Plecker headed the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. He zealously enforced the state’s “racial integrity” law. (Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch.)

The head of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, and the man who sent this heartbreakingly cruel letter, was Walter Ashby Plecker. Plecker, along with two other men, led Virginia’s most powerful white supremacist organization, the Anglo-Saxon Club. Together they played a key role in the passage of Virginia’s 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity (the “new law” to which he refers in this letter). The 1924 law, one in a series of laws passed in Virginia during the 1920s based on racism, nativism, and eugenics ideology of the time, explicitly divided people into just two racial categories, “white” and “colored,” and forbade marriage (and thus implicitly sex) between the two. Virginia wasn’t the only state with such a law, but it became famous as the origin of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case that overturned these laws.

In his role at the Bureau of Vital Statistics, Plecker took it upon himself not only to aggressively enforce the new law, but also to reinforce a worldview that defined people into two discrete groups: “White” and “Non-White.” Now, Plecker didn’t invent this. Virgina and other states had laws on the books since the 1690s banning interracial marriage, and culture had already dictated a type of informal one-drop rule. Legally speaking, though, most states varied in their definitions of “whiteness” to allow anywhere from one-sixteenth to one-fourth “non-white” ancestry. But with the 1924 law, Virginia essentially ruled that any “non-white” ancestry made someone “colored” and therefore not allowed to attend white schools, institutions, or entertainment venues, or to marry a white person.

Pocahontas," engraving by Simon van de Passe, 1616, after her marriage to John Rolfe and baptism as Rebecca. (National Portrait Gallery, London. Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)
Pocahontas,” engraving by Simon van de Passe, 1616, after her marriage to John Rolfe and baptism as Rebecca. (National Portrait Gallery, London. Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

In a telling example of the ways power and racial classification interact, the Virginia legislature did include a loophole in the “one drop” rule, which came to be known as the “Pocahontas Clause.” Many of Virginia’s white elite liked to claim they descended from Pocahontas and John Rolfe — which would make them, under the new law, “colored.” To correct for this, they amended the law to count as “white” anyone with less than one-sixteenth American Indian ancestry.

But this loophole only benefited those with enough power to claim it. For the majority of Virginia’s American Indians, the racial integrity law had devastating short- and long-term consequences. Walter Plecker believed that African Americans would “claim” American Indian ancestry in order to pass as white and — according to the eugenic science of the day — “contaminate” the white race with their inferior heredity. He also believed there had been enough intermarriage between the two groups that there were “no native born Virginia Indians free from negro intermixture.”[2]

In his role as registrar, Plecker took the matter into his own hands and started rooting out and “correcting” birth certificates he believed incorrectly listed race as Indian by marking them as “mixed.” In 1943, he sent the following letter to all of the local registrars in the state, warning them of “mongrels” attempting to pass as white and attaching a list of surnames they should watch out for — families he believed were “mixed” that might attempt to register as white.

(Click for larger larger version.)
(Click for larger larger version.)

This letter says a great deal about the racial and scientific outlook maintained at the time among people like Plecker. His stance was zealous, but not uncommon.

Out of a combined desire to protect their heritage and in recognition of black oppression in the state, Virginia Indians resisted this violence to their identities, but were largely powerless to stop it. As Warren Fiske of the Virginian-Pilot has reported, entire communities emptied as Virginia Indians left the state.

Arthur S. Siegel, "Detroit, Michigan. Riot at the Sojourner Truth homes, a new US federal housing project, caused by white neighbors' attempt to prevent Negro tenants from moving in. Sign with American flag 'We want white tenants in our white community,' directly opposite the housing project," 1942. (Source: LOC, call no. LC-USW3-016549-C.)
Arthur S. Siegel, “Detroit, Michigan. Riot at the Sojourner Truth homes, a new US federal housing project, caused by white neighbors’ attempt to prevent Negro tenants from moving in. Sign with American flag ‘We want white tenants in our white community,’ directly opposite the housing project,” 1942. (Source: LOC, call no. LC-USW3-016549-C.)

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, the ideology of white superiority, and need for “purity” that lay behind it, are only a few examples of the kinds of racial injustices that have piled one upon the other to create the mountain that defines white privilege today. The last remnants of the 1924 act weren’t overturned until 1975, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that Virginia really started trying to undo the legacy of Plecker’s actions. But this type of deeply ingrained racial thinking will take much more than a generation or two to undo. And as Emily Badger recently pointed out in the Washington Post, lack of privilege compounds over time. Correcting these injustices is about more than fixing birth certificates or ending explicit discrimination.

The tricky thing about privilege is that you often don’t see it when you’re the one who benefits. So when public figures like O’Reilly or Senator James Webb say that white privilege no longer exists, it confirms a lot of white people’s personal experiences.

As Peggy McIntosh articulated so well in the late 1980s, and again in a 2014 interview with Joshua Rothman, it can feel insulting to be told you benefit from privilege if you don’t do so intentionally. McIntosh described how, as a feminist well versed in the problem of male privilege, she was initially offended to be told that, as a white person, she benefited from another kind of no less powerful privilege. Gina Crosley-Corcoran tells of a similar experience stemming from economic privilege.

An 1867 political cartoon by the widely published Thomas Nast depicting Irish immigrants as violent, drunk, and monkey-like. (Thomas Nast, "The Day We Celebrate," Harper's Weekly, New York: April 6, 1867, via HarpWeek.)
An 1867 political cartoon by the widely published Thomas Nast depicting Irish immigrants as violent, drunk, and monkey-like. (Thomas Nast, “The Day We Celebrate,” Harper’s Weekly, New York: April 6, 1867, via HarpWeek.)

Privilege comes in many forms, from body shape and ability to nationality to sexuality. But the history of the United States, and especially a long legacy of cultural and scientific racism targeted at all “non-white” peoples (which at times also included Irish and Jewish immigrants), makes race a particularly challenging issue that many would prefer to ignore.

I do believe that one day we’ll get to a point when white privilege no longer exists. When people can identify however they like without wondering whether they’ll be targeted or mistreated or discriminated against. When parents don’t have to teach their children how to protect themselves against others’ prejudices and assumptions. I don’t know how long it will take, but I know it’ll be more than a generation. And I know we’ll never get there by denying the problem exists.


1. (My emphasis) Letter from Walter Plecker, April 30, 1924, quoted in J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) 91.

2. Tori Talbot, “Walter Ashby Plecker (1861–1947),” Encyclopedia Virginia.

3. Chief Kenneth Adams, (Upper Mattaponi), Style Weekly, September 2004, quoted in Gabrielle Tayac and Edwin Schupman, “We Have a Story to Tell: The Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Region,” ed. Mark Hirsch (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 2006), 14. See also Danielle Moretti-Langholtz et al., In Our Own Words: Voices of Virginia Indians (Williamsburg, VA: Two Rivers, 2002).

For more on race and marriage in the United States, see:

  • Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

To learn more about eugenics and race in the United States, I recommend:

  • Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
  • Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

If you’re interested in more about eugenics, race, and gender in Virginia in particular, or want to know more about Walter Plecker:

  • Gregory Michael Dorr, Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008).
  • J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
  • Tori Talbot, “Walter Ashby Plecker (1861–1947),” Encyclopedia Virginia.
  • Interviews at the American Indian Resource Center Podcast Series, The College of William & Mary.

Featured image: Warren K. Leffler, photographer, “Taxi cabs with sign ‘White only, Becks cabs’ on side, Albany, Georgia,” created/published: August 18, 1962. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call number LC-U9-8340-29.

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Shane Landrum (@cliotropic)

Thanks for this post. There’s a further angle to this: Virginia’s modern state-level birth registration laws only started in 1912, and Plecker was the guy who administered the system. Anyone who was born in Virginia before 1912 (and outside a city which had its own birth registration system) didn’t have access to a birth certificate unless they registered their own birth later in life.

Here’s what most people don’t know: the Racial Integrity Act’s provisions for “certificates of racial determination” provided the only option for delayed birth registration in Virginia. If your birth hadn’t been registered when you were born and you needed a birth certificate– say, to get a job when you turned 14, or to get a defense-industry job in World War II– you had to go through Plecker’s office. This dimension of the problem posed even more significant material challenges for people whose ancestry straddled lines of color and/or indigeneity.

I’ve written about this in two places: my 2010 AHA paper “Undocumented Citizens: 
The Crisis of U.S. Birth Certificates, 1940-1945” and “Registering Race, Policing Citizenship: Delayed Birth Registration and the Virginia Racial Integrity Act, 1924-1975.”

My ongoing research on the history of birth certificates and compulsory birth registration in the US describes how public health officials and reformers interested in improving infant mortality rates eventually created the US’s only government infrastructure for documenting birthright citizenship. I’d be interested in hearing from other researchers who are working on related topics and want to propose conference sessions or similar events.

Adam Turner

Thanks for sharing this! It’s really fascinating how much power comes along with control of birth certificates, and the categories they create or enforce. And I’m glad you note that these documents were connected to interest in reducing mortality in childbirth. Plecker’s obsessive focus on white “racial integrity” existed alongside his work to reduce mortality rates, especially among people without access to more expensive medical services.


Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
The effects of centuries of racial discrimination can not be overturned overnight. Adam Turner has written an article for Nursing Clio describing describing the historic roots of white privilege and why it still lingers.

David Harley

American historians of the US, and even African-American historians of Afro-America, often seem to me to have been brought up within the dominant blinkers. They work to break out, and they read the work of colleagues of are doing the same, but it’s difficult to stand outside and look inwards. A few examples of reasily available information that have come up in conversation with American historians and surprised them.

Please forgive if you are familar with all of these, or find my brief sketch facile.

There is no “one drop” rule in other countries. In colonial Brazil, for example, it was possible to climb through the many strata according to one’s wealth rather than appearance. On the other hand, there remains social prejudice, in post-colonial societies which have no “white rule” of the Brazilian kind, such as Cuba and Jamaica, giving higher status to fair skin.

After the Louisiana Purchase, the rules about “race” changed substantially in New Orleans and the surrounding region. Cajuns were completely mixed. “Creoles” were those born in the colony, of whatever ancestry. And so on.

One of the key issues in the Texan revolt against Mexico was that the Texans were slaveowners whereas Mexico had abolished slavery. Davy Crockett, who had converted to Catholicism to become a Mexican citizen, had made his money through slave smuggling, among other dubious practices.

The key issue for the opposition to the invasion of Mexico was that Whigs and Southerners did not want to see free states added to Congress, just as there was conflict while the US colonized the West and gave statehood to the territories.

The key issue for American withdrawal from Cuba, after the Spanish-American War, was the shocking discovery that the population was inextricably mixed in race. Cuba could never become a US state.

I could go on.

David Harley

Is Plecker’s remark, “It is an awful thing,” completely clear? What is it that is “awful”?

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