The term mulatto, referring to an individual of mixed white and black ancestry, has been in use for centuries. The sociologist Edward B. Reuter (1918) and the historian Joel Williamson (1995) generally use the term to include all people of mixed “white blood” and “black blood,” without consideration for the degree of mixture. Early twenty-first-century social scientists of course view such notions of “blood” and “race” as social constructions, not as biological realities. However, an important issue related to the social construction of the term mulatto is its racist basis. The historian Patricia Morton argues that “mulatto is a Latin term for the mule and in a popular ‘muleology’ linked the mule and the mixed ‘blood.’ The mule was the hybrid product of the mating of a horse and a donkey, and, supposedly like the mulattos, had no parents of its own breed and no descendants since it could not produce offspring. Similarly, mulattoes were perceived as the product of an unnatural union” (Morton 1985, p. 111). The tragic mulatto character that frequently appears in American media and literature depicts “mixed-bloods as a visible symbol of lust and what the culture deemed, pejoratively, miscegenation” (Morton 1985, p. 111).
From the inception of the continental slave trade through the era of legal segregation, mulattos have been a constant reminder of the historical raping and coercion of black women. In some instances the unions between white men and black women, as well as those between white women and black men, were thought to be consensual. However, the majority of unions were a result of violent sexual coercion by whites in an effort to enforce the racial oppression of blacks. The raping and sexual coercion of black women by white men prompted governments to enact antimiscegenation laws throughout the southern United States. These laws were not constructed to protect black women from rape or to discourage white men from having sexual relations with black women; rather, the laws ensured that the children of these forced unions could not claim rights to inheritance or freedom. Antimiscegenation laws varied from state to state, but the main objective was to protect the institution of slavery and wealthy landowners’ inheritance.
According to Stephan Talty (2003), enslaved black women were regularly raped and then witnessed the selling of their mulatto children who, in most instances, looked too much like their masters to keep them on the plantations. However, there were instances when “wealthy landowners freed their … mulatto children” (Talty 2003, p. 63). The mulatto population grew rapidly during the slavery era; in the 1860 census mulattos in the South represented over 10 percent of the slave population and nearly 37 percent of the free black population (Toplin 1979). It became increasingly difficult for white slave owners to sell slaves who looked as white as or whiter than the person purchasing them. However, because of their lighter complexions, when mulattos were sold, they were purchased for a higher price than that paid for dark-skinned slaves.
In addition to the mixed race population that resulted from the raping of African women in the United States, there was a large infusion of mixed-race people from Haiti into southern Louisiana. The connection between Haiti and Louisiana became reinforced “in the 1790’s when the French, driven out of Haiti by mulatto revolutionaries, transplanted island culture to lower Louisiana …. There also rose a free mulatto population of some size and, at the top, of impressive wealth.… Nowhere in America did mulattoes rise so high as in lower Louisiana” (Williamson 1995, pp. 20–21).
In New Orleans free mulatto women and white men frequently engaged in interracial relations that became “institutionalized in quadroon balls” (Williamson 1995, p. 23). In New Orleans white men would choose a mulatto woman and seek permission from her parents to establish placage, an arrangement in which the man agreed to establish a house for the woman, provide for her economically, and care for any children she conceived with him without the benefit and security of marriage. In some placage situations, the man would eventually marry a white woman who understood that he had a concubine (Williamson 1995).
Enslaved mulatto women were frequently purchased as concubines for single, married, and widowed white men. According to Williamson, mulatto women were often referred to as “fancy girls” (Williamson 1995, p. 69), and it was understood that though they were trained for domestic work, they were primarily used as concubines. There was a great demand for mulatto women in New Orleans, and some of these women were sold on the auction block to prominent men. White women hated the competition presented by mulatto women: “It was not, after all, the lower classes—the laborers, the plain farmers and tradesman— who paid fancy prices,” it was prominent men in the community who did so (Williamson 1995, p. 70). However, these mulatto women were still enslaved, and many suffered the same deplorable and harsh treatment as darker-skinned men and women. This was particularly true because many southern white women failed to acknowledge the power and responsibility of white men in these relationships and held great animosity toward mulatto women who engaged in sexual relations with white men.
During the slavery period, a growing number of mulatto men and women became educated, were granted inheritances from their rich landowner fathers, and were freed. Many whites in both the South and the North gave preferential treatment to mulattos over darker-skinned blacks, whether they were slaves or not. According to the historian Robert Toplin, “whites frequently made invidious comparisons between Negroes and mulattoes and claimed that the admixture of white blood gave mulattoes special qualities” (Toplin 1979, p. 194).
Indeed mulattos often held leadership positions and were trusted by both whites and blacks. As a result some mulattos internalized this attitude of superiority, buying into the white racist structure that privileged whiteness. Many newly freed mulattos moved to the North, and abolitionists used them to gain white support against slavery by noting the physical similarities between mulattos and whites to invoke outrage at the institution of slavery. Some mulattos relied on their white features to win inheritance cases in court. According to Charles Robinson, “petitions for freedom actually came before the county magistrates from biracial offspring prior to … 1662” (Robinson 2003, p. 3). Mulattos would buy their freedom and the freedom of their family members. During the Reconstruction era in the United States, after slaves had been freed, the majority of black leaders in politics, economics, and education were mulattos.
After slavery ended, the need to discourage interracial unions increased as concerns about maintaining racial purity moved to the forefront for southern whites. Robinson argues that “mixed-race people could and did pass as white and successfully join white society by dint of marriage. Southern whites became increasingly alarmed about the potential of ‘invisible’ blackness to infiltrate white society” (Robinson 2003, p. 102). Robinson further notes that “in 1924, the state of Virginia passed the first anti-miscegenation statute that firmly embraced the one-drop rule” (Robinson 2003, p. 101): Citizens of the state were required to register their racial identities, and anyone with any degree of black ancestry was required to register as black.
The United States was not alone in providing special privileges for mulattos. In Brazil, which had a large mulatto population, mulattos were advantaged because there were so many of them. The historian Carl Degler argues for the importance of examining universal attitudes in reference to mulattos: “There are only two qualities in the United States racial pattern: black and white. A person is one or the other; there is no intermediate position” (Degler  1986, p. 102). However, others argue that in the United States, as in many other parts of the world, including Brazil, there are a variety of degrees for what people consider to constitute white, black, and mulatto.
In the United States research provides compelling data that the darker the skin hue of an African American, the more racism and discrimination he or she will experience in economic life, health care, and sentencing outcomes for criminal punishment (Goldsmith et al. 2006; Eberhardt et al. 2006; Carter 2007). Elizabeth Klonoff and Hope Landrine found that “67% of subjects who experience frequent discrimination were dark-skinned and only 8.5% were light-skinned. Dark-skinned Blacks were 11 times more likely to be in the high discrimination group than their light-skinned counterparts” (Klonoff and Landrine 2000, p. 336).
Arthur Goldsmith, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity Jr. found that “among black males there was a substantial wage advantage (on the order of 7 percent) for having light skin” (Goldsmith, Hamilton, and Darity 2006, p. 245). In cases where black defendants are accused of killing whites, Eberhardt and colleagues suggest that “jurors are influenced not simply by the knowledge that the defendant is Black, but also by the extent to which the defendant appears stereotypically Black” (Eberhardt et al. 2006, p. 385). In Mississippi and some other states the darker the skin hue, the broader the nose, and the fuller the lips, the more likely a defendant will be convicted of a crime and, when applicable, sentenced to death (Eberhardt et al. 2006; Gyimah-Brempong and Price 2006).
SEE ALSO Colorism; Moreno/a; Pardo; Passing; Phenotype; Race; Race Mixing; Racism; Rape; Slave Trade; Slavery; Whiteness
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Degler, Carl N.  1986. Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Eberhardt, Jennifer L., Paul G. Davies, Valerie J. Purdie-Vaughns, and Sheri Lynn Johnson. 2006. Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes. Psychological Science 17 (5): 383–386.
Goldsmith, Arthur H., Darrick Hamilton, and William A. Darity Jr. 2006. Shades of Discrimination: Skin Tone and Wages. American Economic Review 96 (2): 242–245.
Gyimah-Brempong, Kwabena, and Gregory N. Price. 2006. Crime and Punishment: And Skin Hue Too? American Economic Review 96 (2): 246–248.
Klonoff, Elizabeth A., and Hope Landrine. 2000. Is Skin Color a Marker for Racial Discrimination? Explaining the Skin Color–Hypertension Relationship. Journal of Behavioral Medicine 23 (4): 329–338.
Morton, Patricia. 1985. From Invisible Man to “New People”: The Recent Discovery of American Mulattoes. Phylon 46 (2): 106–122.
Reuter, Edward B. 1918. The Mulatto in the United States: Including a Study of the Role of Mixed-blood Races throughout the World. Boston: Badger.
Robinson, Charles Frank. 2003. Dangerous Liaisons: Sex and Love in the Segregated South. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.
Toplin, Robert B. 1979. Between Black and White: Attitudes toward Southern Mulattoes, 1830–1861. Journal of Southern History 45 (2): 185–200.
Williamson, Joel. 1995. New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.