Professor Ariela Gross
What Blood Won't Tell: BUY NOW!

What Blood Won't Tell

A History of Race on Trial in America

Ariela J. Gross

Is race something we know when we see it? In 1857, Alexina Morrison, a slave in Louisiana, ran away from her master and surrendered herself to the parish jail for protection. Blue-eyed and blond, Morrison successfully convinced white society that she was one of them. When she sued for her freedom, witnesses assured the jury that she was white, and that they would have known if she had a drop of African blood. Morrisons court trial and many others over the last 150 years involved high stakes: freedom, property, and civil rights. And they all turned on the question of racial identity.

Over the past two centuries, individuals and groups (among them Mexican Americans, Indians, Asian immigrants, and Melungeons) have fought to establish their whiteness in order to lay claim to full citizenship in local courtrooms, administrative and legislative hearings, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Morrisons case, these trials have often turned less on legal definitions of race as percentages of blood or ancestry than on the way people presented themselves to society and demonstrated their moral and civic character.

Unearthing the legal history of racial identity, Ariela Gross's book examines the paradoxical and often circular relationship of race and the perceived capacity for citizenship in American society. This book reminds us that the imaginary connection between racial identity and fitness for citizenship remains potent today and continues to impede racial justice and equality.

  • CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title of 2009

    Every year in the January issue, in print and online, Choice publishes a list of Outstanding Academic Titles that were reviewed during the previous calendar year. This prestigious list reflects the best in scholarly titles reviewed by Choice and brings with it the extraordinary recognition of the academic library community.

    The list is quite selective: it contains approximately ten percent of some 7,000 works reviewed in Choice each year. Choice editors base their selections on the reviewer's evaluation of the work, the editor's knowledge of the field, and the reviewer's record. The list was known as Outstanding Academic Books until 2000. The new name reflects an increase in reviews of electronic products and Internet sites.

    In awarding Outstanding Academic Titles, the editors apply several criteria to reviewed titles:

    • overall excellence in presentation and scholarship
    • importance relative to other literature in the field
    • distinction as a first treatment of a given subject in book or electronic form
    • originality or uniqueness of treatment
    • value to undergraduate students
    • importance in building undergraduate library collections
  • J. Willard Hurst Prize

    The Hurst prize is given annually (biennially prior to 2002) by the Law and Society Association for the best work (in English) in sociolegal history published in the previous year. In the spirit of Willard Hurst's own work, the field of sociolegal history is broadly defined to include the history of interrelationships between law and social, economic, and political change; the history of functions and impact of legal agencies, legislative and administrative as well as judicial; the social history of the legal profession; and similar topics. The Association seeks studies in legal history that explore the relationship between law and society or illuminate the use, function, and cultural meaning of law and society.

    Click to Read
  • The Lillian Smith Award

    The Lillian Smith Award was established by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Council shortly after the death of the Georgia author in 1966. The award is presented annually to authors whose books are outstanding creative achievements which demonstrate through literary merit and moral vision an honest representation of the South, its people, its problems, and its promises.

    In 2004, the Southern Regional council entered into a partnership with the University of Georgia Libraries, which now administers the awards. In 2007, the Georgia Center for the Book joined the partnership as a co-sponsor to help the awards reach a wider audience.

    The winners of the 2009 Lillian Smith Award are Arelia J. Gross, author of What Blood Won´t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America , published by Harvard University Press; and Bob Zellner with Constance Curry, authors of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, published by New South Books. Gross accepted the fourth annual AJC Decatur Book Festival on Sunday, September 6, 2009 (click here for video).

    Gross is the John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History at the University of Southern California. Her book examines the legal history of racial identity, showing how the relationships of race have affected claims of citizenship over the past 150 years. "This book reminds us that the imaginary connection between racial identity and fitness for citizenship remains potent today and continues to impede racial justice and equality."

    Click to Read
  • American Political Science Association − Race, Ethnicity, and Politics Best Book Award
    Click to Read


What Blood Won't Tell brings us at long last a brilliant analysis of the changing meanings of race in American law from the colonial era to the present. It will be indispensable for any informed discussions of a subject that lies at the very core of both American history and identity.

--David Brion Davis, author of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

This exquisite inquiry into the complex and shifting ways in which the 'black-white' divide has been marked over the last three centuries excavates the deep roots of racial identification.

--Patricia J. Williams, author of The Alchemy of Race and Rights

This exciting study brilliantly underscores the essential absurdities and ruthless logic of attempts to reduce humanity to blood.

-- David Roediger, author of How Race Survived U.S. History

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.

--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Gross supplies a specific accounting of the contortions into which communities and the courts tangled themselves while trying to figure out who was really white or black, or something else. And she looks at the consequences of this thinking, how it divided a nation into black, "non-white" (Native Americans and immigrant groups that didn't come from Europe), and white - the people my grandmother and so many others refer to as, simply, Americans.

--Oscar Villalon, from the article Real Americans in The Virginia Quarterly Review

The problem with race as Americans understand it is that it doesn't really exist. It is a brutal fact of life for millions of citizens, and an inescapable problem for the rest, but it is also, as Ariela J. Gross writes in her densely researched "What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America," a "moving target," whose definition and meaning is always in flux. Many of us can avoid encountering this strange truth in the imprecise realms of cultural and social life, but when it comes to the law, imprecision just doesn't cut it. Gross' book, a history of cases in which people have challenged their official racial designation, eloquently demonstrates just how difficult it can be to say what race -- mine, yours, anybody's -- actually consists

-- Laura Miller, from the Article "Are you white enough?" on

For most of the civic history of black America, that reckoning has been much more than a punch line-as historian David R. Roediger and law professor Ariela J. Gross make painfully clear in How Race Survived U.S. History and What Blood Won't Tell, books that chart the ongoing legacy of the legal apartheid system in the United States. The verdicts they offer cut against the grain of the feel-good "postracial" message that was the moral-for many in the pundit class, anyway-of the Obama candidacy. But that's precisely what makes these books urgently necessary in the present political moment.

-- Brian Gilmore, from the Article "Black and White World" on

In 1790, absent any explicit federal definition of citizenship, Congress restricted eligibility for naturalization to "any alien, being a free white person." In 1952 the racial requirement was revoked. During the intervening 160 years, race and citizenship became mutually constitutive categories in American culture, as Ariela J. Gross demonstrates in her delightfully readable legal history of racial identity in the United States.

The persistent inextricability of race and citizenship leads Gross to reject one strand of the history of race in the United States, the rise of the so-called one-drop rule (p. 297), as well as to call into legal-historical question claims made by whiteness studies scholars about the perceived racial alterity of immigrant groups such as the Irish and Italians. Reviewing freedom suits, miscegenation trials, naturalization cases, and myriad other proceedings, Gross persuasively exposes the shifting sands upon which the unstable but formidable (and enduring) edifice of race in America has been built. In her account, "blood" has seldom, if ever, been the sole juridical criterion for race. Rather, Gross argues, early efforts to locate race in appearance and ancestry were superseded by increased attention to civic performance, local reputation, and personal association in the nineteenth century, followed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by heightened sensitivity to science, national citizenship, and cultural practice. Taking a wider view than classic histories of race by Winthrop D. Jordan and George Frederickson and deftly incorporating the theoretical insights of such legal scholars as Cheryl I. Harris and Devon W. Carbado, Gross's study is a worthy counterpart to Rogers M. Smith's magisterial analysis of the inegalitarian, ascriptive traditions of American citizenship, Civic Ideals (1997).

What Blood Won't Tell has a great deal to tell us about American racial identity as legislated and litigated from the early nineteenth century to the present. Moving outward from the core black-white binary that emerged under slavery and Jim Crow, Gross analyzes American racial thought with the politico-legal construction of Indians as first either sovereign or "domestic, dependent" nations and then, during the allotment era, racial groups defined by blood quantum. Gross is to be credited for appreciating how her subject matter definitively resists, even as it displays, the perennial American desire to see race as one of the nation's self-evident truths. Accordingly, the book is as interested in analyzing competing legal, cultural, and political articulations of emergent Hawaiian, Filipino, and Mexican identities, and those of so-called little races such as the Melungeons and Croatans, as it is with historicizing and thus complicating received views of the foundational red-white-black triad (p. 115). Tracking how racial litigation refracted changing legal and medico-scientific discourses of race, Gross illustrates how these two professionalizing fields vied for authority with each other as well as with a juridically cultivated popular "common sense" of race (p. 16).

Its succinct phrasing and knack for concise overview make this study a natural choice for undergraduate syllabi. But it is Gross's dedication to historical and legal specificity within a study of breathtaking political and cultural scope that makes What Blood Won't Tell an American studies masterpiece.

--Jeannine Marie DeLombard, University of Toronto, Journal of America History

What Blood Won't Tell chronicles the history of efforts to determine racial identity in the courts. Seldom, if ever, does science enter into the effort; rather, attorneys and others turn their attention to the evidence of skin color, social behavior, cultural customs, and other subjective and changeable evidence. The only thing that remains constant is the underlying assumption that white equals "full social and political citizenship" while anything else is inferior, less-than, and undeserving of Constitutional protection...The overriding opinion was that it's best to be white, but if you can't manage that, just don't be black. This shameful and ignorant American caste system is still as deeply entrenched in the nation's consciousness as ever, it seems...What Blood Won't Tell turns out to be a riveting overview of legal decisions regarding race and freedoms and a dizzying look at the insanity of social hierarchy and its ongoing impact on social development.

--Deborah Adams, Curled Up with a Good Book

Gross [has written] an amazing book that addresses the relationship between race and citizenship in the U.S. Gross's presentation is both detailed and complex. The first half is devoted to establishing the role race and racism have played within the history and law of the U.S., as well as further developing the rich literature within whiteness scholarship. The strength of her argument lies in her ability to inject specific examples, oftentimes cases from the 19th century, into her whiteness discussions. The second half is equally impressive. Here Gross utilizes critical race theory to discuss black Indian identity, race in Hawaii, and other contemporary issues. This book is innovative, accessible, and valuable for undergraduates, graduates, and laypeople interested in a deep conversation on race and history.

--A. R. S. Lorenz, Choice