Reading between the (Blood) Lines

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States on 2010-07-02 14:38Z by Steven

Reading between the (Blood) Lines

Southern California Law Review
Volume 83, Number 3 (2010)
pages 473-494

Rose Cuison Villazor, Professor of Law
Hofstra University School of Law

Legal scholars and historians have depicted the rule of hypodescent—that “one drop” of African blood categorized one as Black—as one of the powerful ways that law and society deployed to construct racial identities and deny equal citizenship. Ariela J. Gross’s new book, “What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America,” boldly complicates the dominant narrative about hypodescent rules in legal scholarship. On the one hand, “What Blood Won’t Tell” argues that the legal and social construction of race was far more complex, flexible and subject to manipulation than the scholarship regarding the rules about blood distinctions has suggested. On the other hand, “What Blood Won’t Tell” highlights circumstances, both historically and in recent memory, of the ways in which blood distinctions played crucial roles in shaping the identity of people of color, including indigenous peoples. Importantly, “What Blood Won’t Tell” also examines how blood quantum rules relate to contemporary efforts to reassert indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and claims to lands.

This Review highlights the important contributions of “What Blood Won’t Tell” to our understanding of the racial experience of indigenous peoples and the contemporary methods used to remedy the present-day effects of indigenous peoples’ colonial experience. “What Blood Won’t Tell” advances a more robust account of the racialization of people of color through rules about blood differences in at least three ways. First, it places the colonial experience of indigenous peoples within the larger historical contexts of racial subordination and efforts to promote White domination and privilege. Second, it underscores the federal government’s ongoing responsibility to counteract the long-standing effects of its past misdeeds by addressing indigenous peoples’ unresolved claims to lands that have been stolen from them. Third, it allows us to take a careful look at the relationship between blood quantum rules and the right of indigenous peoples to exercise self-determination. Taken together, these three perspectives reveal the immense challenges inherent to remedying the long-term effects of the racialization and colonization of indigenous peoples.

Read the entire article here.

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Real Americans [Book Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Law, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States on 2010-06-03 01:57Z by Steven

Real Americans [Book Review]

The Virginia Quarterly Review
Spring 2009
pages 206-210

Oscar Villalon

What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, by Ariela J. Gross. Harvard University Press, October 2008.

As a child, there were the Americans, and then there was us.

Americans weren’t that plentiful in my grandmother’s neighborhood. The next-door neighbor to the right, he was an American. He was an older man, and he had a big grey dog chained up in his backyard. On New Year’s Eve, two of his sons got into an argument, so one of them went into a room and came back with a pistol and shot his brother dead, right there in the hallway. My grandmother’s other neighbors, two doors down, used to shoot off guns all the time too. They weren’t Americans. My uncle was roller-skating up and down the street once, when a car pulled up in front of the neighbor’s home. Just as my uncle skated by the car, the rear window lowered, and a shotgun slid out. He screamed. The window sucked back the shotgun and the car tore off. The guys in the car weren’t American, either…

Much wrangling—legal and intellectual—has gone into delineating which Americans are really Americans and which are not fully Americans: black, Indian, Latino, or Asian. How that was reckoned in our country’s history is at the heart of Ariela J. Gross’s book, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. A professor of law and history at the University of Southern California, Gross examines various court transcripts and federal rulings, stretching back to the years just before the Civil War and going well into the twentieth century, to make sense of how Americans—white Americans—decided whether a person (or an entire group of people) was just like them and so should be afforded all the rights guaranteed under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 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.

The necessity for classification, Gross writes, stems from “the peculiar institution.” In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, slavery had to be justified by the ideal that one group of people was intrinsically suited to be chattel and another group of people was meant to wield the whip. Slavery depended on a lot of people buying into “a powerful ideology,” the notion of race. “Fundamental to race is a hierarchy of power . . . a human Chain of Being, with white at the top and black at the bottom.” For the institution to survive, a slave’s “blackness”—those qualities identifying him as being descended from the tribe of Ham—had to be indisputable. The trouble was, if a slave didn’t have, say, dark brown skin and kinky hair, it sometimes wasn’t clear how to categorize him. This uncertainty would prove to be a persistent problem, which, Gross shows, isn’t surprising. The need to separate people was working against an unacknowledged truth about the roots of the country. Namely, there was never a time when people of different skin colors and cultures didn’t mix with each other, whether by their own volition or against their will.

Colonial America, Gross writes, was a rather mixed society. Not only were there communities of African Americans, some of whom were never slaves, but there were robust Indian nations, too, throughout the Eastern seaboard. And into these nations African Americans were often welcomed, as were some European Americans. Some were free blacks, some were former slaves; they took Indian spouses, had children, and conformed to their adopted culture. Some Indian groups, such as the Five Civilized Nations, held black slaves. They even fought on the side of the Confederacy. There was, of course, some integration between slave and master in these groups, just as there was in the white antebellum South. In early America, with each wave of births, and with the country’s ever-expanding territorial domain (meaning new towns were constantly forming where people showed up with little or no documentation of their past), the only way to know for sure if somebody was black or white was to find out whether or not he or she had a master.

This was especially the case in the South, but even there, presumably irrefutable proof wasn’t enough. Take the case of Alexina Morrison, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Louisiana woman who claimed she was not a born slave but rather a kidnapped white woman. Gross offers her case as an exemplar of how the first racial-identity trials worked: they were decided at the local level, settled by juries of white men who were ultimately more interested in how the plaintiff acted rather than how she appeared. Though Morrison “was undoubtedly a slave, and almost certainly had some African ancestry,” and despite the testimony of doctors that she was biologically black, and despite an examination of her body in court, where parts of her were poked and prodded for the “hidden marks of race,” Morrison was granted her freedom because, to use a sociological term, she “performed” white. Performing as a white woman, Gross writes, meant displaying unimpeachable moral virtue and chasteness. That, and already being accepted as white by the local community, took precedence, not only in Morrison’s case, but in so many others. Gross cites how “[d]espite the visual power of exhibition, not all candidates for whiteness were paraded before the jury, and even when they were, jurors were given many reasons not to believe their own eyes. Only 20 of 68 case records from the 19th Century South referred explicitly to inspections.” What’s more, “[o]nly 2 of 20 relied solely on physical appearance, and only one case relied on physical appearance plus a single type of evidence,” such as the plaintiff not having the “hollow arches” of a biologically white woman. In another case, Hudgins v. Wright, the plaintiff, Hannah, won her freedom by convincing the court she was Indian and not black. She claimed that her mother, a slave, was Indian. Her “red complexion” and straight hair, as well as what was described as a noble character, were proof she couldn’t possibly be black. The court’s ruling confirmed, Gross writes, that “Indians were by default citizens of a free nation; Africans were by default members of an enslaved race.”…

Read the entire review here.

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“Of Portuguese Origin”: Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the “Little Races” in Nineteenth-Century America

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2009-11-01 23:48Z by Steven

“Of Portuguese Origin”: Litigating Identity and Citizenship among the “Little Races” in Nineteenth-Century America

Law and History Review
Volume 25, Number 3

Ariela J. Gross, John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History
University of Southern California

The history of race in the nineteenth-century United States is often told as a story of black and white in the South, and white and Indian in the West, with little attention to the intersection between black and Indian. This article explores the history of nineteenth-century America’s “little races”—racially ambiguous communities of African, Indian, and European origin up and down the eastern seaboard. These communities came under increasing pressure in the years leading up to the Civil War and in its aftermath to fall on one side or the other of a black-white color line. Drawing on trial records of cases litigating the racial identity of the Melungeons of Tennessee, the Croatans/Lumbee of North Carolina, and the Narragansett of Rhode Island, this article looks at the differing paths these three groups took in the face of Jim Crow: the Melungeons claiming whiteness; the Croatans/Lumbee asserting Indian identity and rejecting association with blacks; the Narragansett asserting Indian identity without rejecting their African origins. Members of these communities found that they could achieve full citizenship in the U.S. polity only to the extent that they abandoned their self-governance and distanced themselves from people of African descent.

Historians have only begun to tell the histories of “red and black” peoples in the United States, and much of their attention has focused on the “Black Indians” of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeastern United States. Yet up and down the eastern seaboard, there were clusters of people who shared African, European, and Indian ancestry, many of whom lived as distinct and separate communities into the nineteenth and even the mid-twentieth centuries, some retaining or struggling to retain Indian identities, others becoming known as “free people of color,” and still others claiming whiteness.

These “little races,” as they were sometimes known, in many ways gave the lie to the binary statutory regimes of nineteenth-century America. They came under growing pressure from local officials and neighbors as communities became increasingly preoccupied with racial line drawing. But they followed very different paths. By studying these racially ambiguous communities, it is possible to learn more about the relationship among whiteness, blackness, and citizenship in the United States…

Read the entire article here.

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

Posted in Books, History, Law, Louisiana, Media Archive, Monographs, Native Americans/First Nation, Slavery, Social Science, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States, Women on 2009-11-01 18:58Z by Steven

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

Harvard University Press
October 2008
384 Pages
Hardcover ISBN 13: 978-0-674-03130-2; ISBN 10: 0-674-03130-X
Paperback ISBN 13: 978-0-674-04798-3; ISBN 10: 0-674-04798-2

Ariela J. Gross, John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History
University of Southern California

  • Co-Winner 2009 James Willard Hurst Prize, Law and Society Association
  • Co-Winner 2009 Lillian Smith Book Awards, the Southern Regional Council and the University of Georgia
  • Winner of the 2009 American Political Science Association Award for the Best Book on Race, Ethnicity and Politics

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. Morrison’s 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 Morrison’s 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.

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