In What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, Ariela J. Gross provides a compelling and nuanced account of race in America. Through her examination of “racial trials”—litigation in which racial identification plays a crucial role—Gross ties together the personal, social, and political dimensions of racial identity and classification. This discussion provides an important new perspective on the study of race in this country.

Earlier studies of racial classification have focused on the meanings of statutory racial categories. Gross, however, centers her analysis on the formation and reaffirmation of racial categories as a primarily social process. Gross draws from numerous racial trials—spanning slavery in the antebellum South to modern-day Mexican Americans grappling with “whiteness”—in order to survey the origins and history of “black” and “white” as categories in American life.

From the opening pages of Ariela J. Gross’s What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, it is clear that the reader is about to embark on something special. The story begins in a Louisiana courthouse in 1857, with an enslaved woman named Alexina Morrison claiming that she is white. For her contemporaries, the assertion no doubt carried troubling implications. James White, the man who insisted Morrison was black, had papers to prove that he paid good money for her and that she was his property. But her “blue eyes and flaxen hair” told a different story, and her recent appearances at public balls in Jefferson Parish had convinced a number of residents that her graceful mannerisms and affectations were those of a white woman rather than slave. The courtroom was soon bombarded with a dizzying array of evidence for such a simple question—was she white or was she black?—with men eventually stripping her to the waist to examine her body for the tiniest signs of her true identity. Three trials later, the community still had not resolved the issue. But more importantly, from Gross’s view, this case provides an unparalleled opportunity to examine the complex and constantly shifting ground of race and its import for this nation’s history.

When fifteen-year-old Elisa Cazares was not nominated for membership to her high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, she and her teachers were surprised. As the “brightest student” her math teacher had “seen come through” Tohono O’Odham High School, Cazares was one of four members of the student government, had been on the honor roll for every report period, and was active in a number of student activities. Arguing that the selection committee declined to nominate her because she was pregnant, unwed, and not living with the father of her future child, Cazares claimed that her equal protection rights had been violated and brought suit in federal district court. In holding that Cazares’s exclusion constituted a violation of her equal protection rights, the district court mandated that “no student . . . [could] be inducted into the National Honor Society unless and until Elisa Cazares [was] among them.” To achieve compliance with the district court’s instructions, Tohono O’Odham canceled the induction ceremony, remedying the violation by denying both Cazares and the students the selection committee had already nominated access to the Society.

The Kamehameha Schools are a series of private, nonprofit, nonsectarian campuses interspersed throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Founded in the late nineteenth century, they have operated continuously ever since, fulfilling their mission to provide a “good education in the common English branches, and also instruction in morals and in such useful knowledge as may tend to make good and industrious men and women.” With over five thousand students enrolled in kindergarten through grade twelve, the Kamehameha Schools are collectively among the largest independent primary and secondary educational institutions in the United States. Otherwise—apart from their strong academic reputation and champion athletic teams—they might be perceived as fairly typical schools. This perception is deceiving. To the contrary, they are anything but.

In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA” or the “Act”) with the goal of eliminating discrimination against disabled Americans by providing clear, strong, consistent, and enforceable standards to combat the type of discrimination people with disabilities face in their everyday lives. The ADA is the force behind the wheelchair ramps so common in American buildings, the wide doors and large bathroom stalls to accommodate the disabled, the talking ATMs to assist individuals who are blind, and the acceptance of service animals in restaurants and shops. Yet the ADA has provided little help to disabled Internet users.

On July 26, 2005, President George W. Bush released a proclamation celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), signed into law by the former President Bush. In the proclamation, President Bush “call[ed] on all Americans…to fulfill the promise of the ADA [and] to give all people the opportunity to live with dignity, work productively, and achieve their dreams.” At the time of its signing there were more than forty-three million disabled persons in the United States; this number has grown to more than forty-nine million. The purpose of the ADA was to eliminate discrimination against this growing population in a number of areas by providing a “legal recourse to redress such discrimination.”