From Volume 83, Number 3 (March 2010)
What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America tells the history of race and racism in the United States through the lens of trials of racial identity—cases in which courts or administrative bodies determined whether someone was black, white, or Indian. The book is first and foremost a history of the shifting ways Americans have used the law to create “race,” a system of ordering people hierarchically with grave consequences for liberty, property, and rights. While many histories of race and law emphasize the rise of a “one drop of blood rule” as uniquely degrading to African Americans because of its association of “negro” blood with taint, and focus on evidence from statutes and high court pronouncements, my book instead looks at law “on the ground.”
In practice, degree-of-blood rules were not as important as other forms of racial knowledge, especially evidence of racial performances and associations, and certain kinds of racial “science” and expertise. Moreover, the discourse of racial performance rose together with the better-known discourse of science in the mid-nineteenth century, and they were not perceived as opposites or mutually exclusive. My point is not to show that race is legally “constructed”—a starting rather than an endpoint of the narrative—nor that race was contingent, performative, and fluid, but to show that making race depend on performance drew a close connection between whiteness and citizenship in U.S. law. It is this imaginary connection between whiteness and fitness for citizenship that I believe remains a potent force today in debates over immigration, the PATRIOT Act, and innumerable other public questions.