cover image What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America

What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America

Ariela J. Gross, . . Harvard Univ., $29.95 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-674-03130-2

Through a close reading of racial identity trials in America, this book offers an eloquent contribution to ongoing debates over affirmative action, identity politics and the construction of a “colorblind” society. Historian Gross argues that racial identity trials—court cases in which outcomes turned on determining a person's “race” and their concomitant rights and privileges—provides an excellent basis for viewing the construction of “whiteness” and assessing the volatile category of race in American society. The author rigorously examines select cases including the outcomes of suits for freedom by onetime slaves like Abby Guy, who in 1857 convinced an all-white male jury that she was white and thus deserving of freedom. Upsetting the familiar notion of the “one-drop rule” in determining racial identity, Gross shows that in such cases the notion of what constituted race was itself as much in play as whether a particular individual could be identified (through some unstable combination of expert and “common sense” opinion) as one race or another. The social “performance” of identity is key, and enduringly so, as Gross periodically underscores by reference to various modern debates and trends. (Oct.)