“The Five Negro Presidents”: A Litmus Test for Racial Sanity

J.J. Alduey
Jan 20 · 6 min read
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A way to gauge racial sanity in yourself and the people around you is simply to note the reaction when you read out loud the full title of J.A Rogers’ 1965 book “The Five Negro Presidents (U.S.A): According to What White People Said They Were.” The title will seem over-the-top, like some unorthodox, self-serving definitions are being applied, or like the book peddles ‘alternative facts.’ Even the famed black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. thinks the work merits, if there were such a thing, a “Black History Wishful Thinking Prize.”

Not at all. Here’s what’s actually over-the-top: “Negro” means having even the smallest trace of black ancestry, a highly impractical, if not impossible standard of whiteness known as “the one-drop rule” — codified into law in 17 states during the peak of the Jim Crow era, when it appears the country was captured by mass racial hysteria.

Having clarified that the one-drop rule is in effect, you’re still likely to hear something along these lines in reaction to the book’s title: “Who were these five presidents? Show me proof of their black ancestry.” This question takes for granted, first, that the founding fathers should all be “snow white” despite the eight generations of racial intermixing leading up the country’s founding; and second, that somehow the extended families of all 44 white presidents to date, going back generations, were neurotic enough to avoid being “stained” by the smallest amount of black blood — each family defying astronomical odds.

A reasonable person would wonder how there could possibly be as few as five U.S presidents with any trace of black ancestry, and ask for proof of racial “purity” for the rest.

In the book Rogers documents claims for eight leading figures in American History, not just five. He adds Colonel William Fairfax, Alexander Hamilton, and Lincoln’s Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, to the main five: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren G. Harding, and Dwight Eisenhower (the last one was only hinted at, not expressly named, perhaps because he was a living ex-president when the book came out).

Rogers seems more interested in showing the absurd logic of racism than in claiming these famous men for the black community. His very brief closing statement reads:

“In conclusion, the fact that these five Presidents can be Caucasian to some and Negro to others, but shows how ridiculous is this burning question of race.”

The book’s subtitle, “According to What White People Said They Were,” should signal that Rogers is mostly observing a unique spectacle: whites accusing one another of being racial impostors. His general approach is to document these controversies in detail (citing sources extensively), without taking a position on any particular one, except for the case of Alexander Hamilton.

The British royal family is about as racially exclusive as one might imagine, and even here black blood was detected long before Meghan Markle was in the picture. Rogers notes this, saying:

“if Negro strain can be found in European royalty, which is so exclusive, why not in the American colonies, where there was so much intermixing?…That, therefore, these American Presidents might have had some Negro strain is possible.”

Notice the excessive caution displayed by Rogers. He limits himself to “these” five American presidents, and to the mere “possibility” that they could have “some negro strain.” In fact, given what he acknowledges about European royalty, it’s not only possible, but quite likely that most — or at least a good deal more than just five — U.S presidents would fail any serious test of racial purity.

Yet the delusion of “white purity” keeps its grip on society today. For instance, the title of a recent New York Times story implies that a drop of black blood would have made Warren G. Harding the first black president: “DNA Shows Warren Harding Wasn’t America’s First Black President” (August 18, 2015).

By the end of the piece it’s clear to careful readers that Harding has not passed a white purity test. Using DNA samples from 3 descendants (a grand nephew, grand niece, and a grandson), it was determined with 95 percent certainty only that Harding wasn’t 6 percent Sub-Saharan African. So he may still have less than 6 percent Sub-Saharan ancestry — and/or more than 6 percent North African ancestry (nothing mentioned about the latter region— often assumed ‘non-black’, which is also worth exploring, to say the least). The labs were taken in the first place to verify that Harding had a child by a mistress (results support the claim). A casual reader is easily duped into thinking Harding passed a genuine test of white purity; and that such a test can and should be passed, if for no other reason than to resolve a “subplot that played out in [Harding’s] lifetime.”

Euro-Americans, on average, have 0.19 percent African ancestry, according to a study published in 2015 by the American Journal of Human Genetics. Based on over 160,000 DNA samples from customers of 23andMe (a genetics ancestry website), the report contains one statement that indicates just how many white Americans may have black ancestry:

“… more than six million Americans, who self-identify as European, might carry African ancestry.”

“More than six million” sounds like a lot, but the real implication here is that no African blood whatsoever would be found in about 97 percent of self-identified non-Hispanic whites — a damning result no matter how you spin it. “More than a hundred million” would be more like it. We should expect to find small traces of a long-standing minority’s DNA in most members of the majority population. Any science team worth their salt would express this expectation, look for those DNA traces at the smallest detectable scales, and report findings — including a detailed explanation if results don’t match. This study does nothing of the kind.

Just as damning is the “possibility” that the study’s researchers found traces of African DNA in most white subjects, but a bias toward white purity left them totally unprepared for such findings, which they then rejected as “statistical noise.”

For a glimpse of this “possibility”, here is a comment from the white supremacist online forum Stormfront, posted ten months before the study was published:

“…23andMe’s new ancestry composition is full of ****. EVERY single American’s results that I have seen ALWAYS have this 0.1 percent non-white garbage, and I literally mean every single one, and I’ve viewed hundreds.”

This was a reply to another Stormfront user who reported a 0.02 percent African ancestry result from 23andMe. Interesting enough, the DNA website has stopped providing ethnicity estimates below 0.1 percent.

By any reasonable standard, a white American with 0.02 percent African ancestry is still white; the one-drop rule, on the other hand, is anything but reasonable. That 0.02 percent translates to roughly 20 drops — more than enough, according to dedicated white purists, to make someone black.

Meanwhile, things don’t appear much saner in the mainstream. We’re not yet beyond the preposterous notion that, except for Barack Obama, all U.S Presidents to date should be presumed not just white, but “snow white” by that one-drop standard until proven otherwise.

A case in point is the most popular online encyclopedia (Wikipedia), which has a page titled “African-American heritage of presidents of the United States.” The page has only two major sections: “Presidents with African Ancestry” and “Unsubstantiated claims that presidents have/had African ancestry.” The former section lists only Barack Obama; the latter lists all the presidents in Rogers’ book, plus one other (Calvin Coolidge). Apparently this page exists mostly in reaction to “The Five Negro Presidents”, as a signal that any thinking along the lines of that book should be dismissed as amateur quackery.

The one-drop rule, in fact, is quackery in its truest form, and an impossible bind for whites that was nevertheless self-imposed. This is especially so in the era of DNA tests, which upon close inspection should reveal, by the one-drop logic, that a majority of American whites just “pass for white.” This logic also obscures genuine efforts to understand “blackness” as a lived experience, where genetics is only one of multiple dimensions.

Over 150 years of racial intermixing during America’s colonial period puts the odds firmly against those claiming all founding fathers were absolutely “snow white.” It only gets worse for racial purists after the Revolution, until the odds become virtually insurmountable for anyone claiming all white U.S presidents to date could pass a racial purity test.

Sanity would lead us to assume a good deal more than five, if not most, U.S presidents had a drop or two of colored ancestry, and to leave the burden of proof where it belongs — on anyone claiming otherwise. An informed assumption is hardly “wishful thinking.” The typical reaction to “The Five Negro Presidents”, plus the ‘white purity’ bias in major population studies, are disturbing signs harking back to Jim Crow era madness, when legislatures upheld a “one-drop” rule which amounts to a declaration that blacks don’t exist.

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J.J. Alduey

Written by

Writes culture, tech, and the occasional poem/short-story/drawing.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

J.J. Alduey

Written by

Writes culture, tech, and the occasional poem/short-story/drawing.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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