Book by Ariela Gross examines racial identity trials
—By Gilien Silsby
USC Law Professor Ariela Gross has won the annual James Willard Hurst, Jr. Prize for her book, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America.
Awarded by the Law and Society Association, the Hurst Prize is given annually for the best work in sociolegal history published in the previous year. 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.
Gross shared the prize in sociolegal history with James A. Brundage, an emeritus professor at University of Kansas and author of “The Medieval Origins of the Legal Profession.” The awards were presented recently at a ceremony held in Denver.
"This award is especially meaningful to me because it's awarded by legal historians and scholars of law and society,” said Gross. “I'm thrilled that they've given this honor not only to my book, but to recognize the emerging field of the legal-cultural history of race."
In What Blood Won’t Tell (Harvard University Press, 2008), Gross recounts stories of racial identity trials in American courts, from the early republic well into the 20th century. Racial identity trials – court cases that determined a person’s “race” as well as their rights and privileges – help explain the history of race and racism in America, Gross said.
“Today, racial identity trials may seem bizarre, but they were common occurrences in local American courts,” Gross said. “The outcome of race trials often depended less upon blood percentage or ancestry than on the way people presented themselves.”
What Blood Won’t Tell was selected as this year’s winner of the Hurst Prize because it is a “masterful account” of racial identity trials in American history, said Catherine Fisk, a law professor at UC Irvine and member of the 2009 Hurst Prize Committee.
“Ariela’s book is elegantly written, deeply researched, and remarkably accessible,” Fisk said. “It combines detailed, intricate, and hugely engaging accounts of individual stories with grand historical sweep.”