The New York Times Opinionator online site has a very interesting commentary by law professor Daniel j. Sharfstein (Vanderbilt) on how some relatively well-off men in the slaveholding South were able to move from being “black” under the later very common one drop of blood rule (that is, some African ancestry) to being treated as “white” because they had some property, including sometimes property in enslaved African Americans, and connections and had done well in the pre-Civil War South.
Sharfstein makes this point about the historical data he has analyzed on a Confederate officer named Randall Lee Gibson in Louisiana who strongly supported the Confederacy, secession, and slavery:
The son of a wealthy sugar planter and valedictorian of Yale’s Class of 1853, Gibson had long supported secession. Conflict was inevitable, he believed, not because of states’ rights or the propriety or necessity of slavery. Rather, a war would be fought over the inexorable gulf between whites and blacks, or what he called “the most enlightened race” and “the most degraded of all the races of men.”
The great, sad, and sick irony about Colonel Gibson’s extremely racist view of the racial hierarchy and white supremacy was that he himself was the descendant of a free black man named Gideon Gibson who came to the South Carolina colony in the 1730s. Because he had married a white woman and had been a landowner in another colony, Gideon Gibson was granted substantial land in expanding South Carolina and eventually became a well-off planter and slaveholder there. This worked out because before the Civil War, as Sharfstein notes,
Most Southern states followed a one-quarter or one-eighth rule: anyone with a black grandparent or great-grandparent was legally black, and those with more remote ancestry were legally white.
As the Gibson’s descendants moved west and thrived in Louisiana, their African origins got “watered down” by more marriages and interactions with whites, and forgotten or hidden, and soon the descendant of a black man, Randall Gibson, became a raving white supremacist and Confederate Officer. This probably happened dozens if not hundreds of times over slavery’s centuries.
This is a clear example not only of how “race” is socially and societally constructed, but also of how powerful the age-old white racial frame is.
Even those whose ancestry is linked outside Europe to Africa can most certainly buy into and operate out of the white racial frame. What Sharfstein and commentators I have seen so far on this story do not do, is to call out the role of elite white men and the broader U.S. racist system and its imposed white racial frame as the reasons why Colonel Randall Lee Gibson felt the need to inferiorize black people and superiorize white people so aggressively. And to conform to the racial oppressor class so aggressively.
The U.S. racist system is so powerful that it dominates all who come within its sphere, including the minds of Americans of color, and counter-framing and resistance to whites’ systemic racism are very difficult for any person, and thus are only rarely attempted in a big way – in part because one can certainly die in this large-scale resistance and counter framing.