Book Review: Reading Between the (Blood) Lines – Article by Rose Cuison Villazor

From Volume 83, Number 3 (March 2010)
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Legal scholars and historians have recognized the rule of hypodescent—that “one drop” of African blood categorized one as Black—as one of the powerful tools that law and society deployed to construct racial identities and deny equal citizenship. Indeed, at least one prominent scholar has suggested that the concept of hypodescent operated as the most determinative method of ascertaining racial identity. Formalistic in its application, the hypodescent rule ensured “[t]hat even Blacks who did not look Black were kept in their place.” 

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. Using racial identity trials and local records as sites for examining the legal production of race, What Blood Won’t Tell exposes the various methods that local citizens deployed to define race. “Common sense,” “race performance,” and “race by association” were among the informal and subjective factors that ignored the formalism of blood rules in the prescription of racial identity. Thus, contrary to the general view that blood always determined race, What Blood Won’t Tell illustrates how people were “raced” despite their blood—leading Gross to boldly state that “we have made too much of the ‘hypodescent’ rule.”


 

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