From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Challenging the presumption of many scholars of the dominance of the one-drop rule in conferring black status, Gross argues that despite the rule, in court and by custom, racial boundaries were much more fluid and flexible—yet, primarily in the service of white supremacy. From slavery through the Jim Crow period to the twentieth century free-white phase, Gross focuses on several prominent trials involving racially ambiguous individuals or groups that challenged the one-drop rule and reflected the depth of the racial hierarchy. The drawing of lines between whites and blacks in associating slavery with race pushed middle- and lower-class whites to identify more strongly with white elites. Drawing legal lines between Indians and blacks racialized both groups, undercut any potential alliance, and helped facilitate the loss of Indian lands. For immigrants, the line helped facilitate the identification of America as a white nation, and undercut a potential alliance based on class. Gross also reflects on how this history of race determination fits into current efforts at a color-blind approach that ignores the significance of race in American culture. --Vernon Ford