U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s infamous declaration in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that an African American had “no rights that the white man was bound to respect” is widely regarded as one of the causes of the American Civil War. However, few remember that Justice Taney’s language was largely borrowed from an earlier decision of the Georgia Supreme Court. Over 150 years later, this same Georgia Supreme Court decision inspired Ariela Gross to undertake an investigation into the role that the courts have played in the development of the American conception the idea of race. The result of this investigation is Professor Gross’s recent book, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. This important new work was recently recognized with a Lillian Smith Book Award for 2009. Dr. Gross and Professor Mary A. Twining discuss lessons from the book in this video which was taken at the 2009 Award Ceremony.
"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."
“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.”
Join us for the 2012 Ceremony
DeKalb County Public Library
September 2, 2012