OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Ariela J. Gross

Portrait of Ariela J. Gross
Image Credit: Sophia Goldman

Ariela J. Gross is the John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History, and a co-director of the Center for Law, History, and Culture, at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana (2020) (with Alejandro de la Fuente); What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (2008) which was named a Choice outstanding academic title, co-winner of the James Willard Hurst Prize, and winner of the Lillian Smith Award and the American Political Science Association's Best Book on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics; and Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (2000). She is currently working on a study of race, law, and conservatism in post-World War II America, as well as a book on the uses of the history of slavery in contemporary law and politics. Gross’s work has been featured in popular media outlets, including the Washington Post, Zócalo Public Square, Lapham’s Quarterly, and El País.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This lecture gives an overview of the ways the legal system created and supported slavery, not only through the criminal law, but also the everyday law of commerce and slavery. It also discusses the centrality of slavery to the Constitution, the constitutional crises precipitated by slavery in a federal system, culminating in the Dred Scott case on the eve of the Civil War.
This presentation discusses the construction of race in the law by looking at trials of racial identity in which courts sought to determine who was Black, white, or Indian. It shows that these legal cases tied citizenship to whiteness, and that connection carried through from the antebellum era through the 20th century in cases regarding Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and other immigrants to the United States. The promise of the Reconstruction Amendments, still not fulfilled, is to break that connection between citizenship and whiteness.
How did Africans become 'blacks' in the Americas? Based on the book she co-authored with Alejandro de la Fuente, "Becoming Free, Becoming Black," Gross tells the story of enslaved and free people of color who used the law to claim freedom and citizenship for themselves and their loved ones. Their communities challenged slaveholders' efforts to make blackness synonymous with slavery. Looking closely at three slave societies - Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana, she demonstrates that the law of freedom - not slavery - established the meaning of blackness in law. Contests over freedom determined whether and how it was possible to move from slave to free status, and whether claims to citizenship would be tied to racial identity. Laws regulating the lives and institutions of free people of color created the boundaries between black and white, the rights reserved to white people, and the degradations imposed only on black people.
This lecture uses Los Angeles as a case study to talk about post-World War II opposition to civil rights in grassroots battles over housing and schools. At the local level, opponents of civil rights shifted from emphasizing a “right to discriminate” to a more race-neutral “freedom of choice,” opposing race-conscious measures to combat inequality with colorblind conservatism, which was far more effective than violent resistance, and originated in places like California as well as Mississippi.
Slavery is the touchstone for every discussion about blackness in the United States. What are the stories we tell about slavery to justify policies or politics in the present? This presentation looks at the way the history and memory of slavery reverberate through law, culture, and politics in debates about reparations, affirmative action, and other forms of redress for a past that lives on in the present.