Ariela Gross is a historian, writer, and law professor researching and writing about the way race and slavery have shaped law, culture, and politics in the Americas – and also the way law has created the very category of “race,” with devastating consequences.
Today, she has a new book out with Alejandro de la Fuente (Harvard University), titled Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Louisiana, and Virginia. It builds on her earlier two books, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America and Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom, which looked at the intertwining of race, slavery and law in the United States, as well as Alejandro’s work on enslaved people’s claims to freedom in Cuba. Together, they tell the story of enslaved and free people of color who used the law to claim freedom and citizenship for themselves and their loved ones, challenging slaveholders’ efforts to make blackness synonymous with slavery.
Ariela grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, a small college town in the Northeast that was segregated by race and class: the Princeton Township (the “donut”) was white and wealthy, surrounding the Princeton Borough (the “hole”), where Black and Italian descendants of the workers who built Princeton University lived. As she became more politically aware, Ariela started to ask questions about these structures of white supremacy that ordered people’s lives in ways that seemed “natural.” Her first experience being called to the principal’s office was to be scolded about an editorial she had written in the school newspaper about persistent racial hierarchy through “tracking” kids into separate groups for their classes.
Ariela always knew she wanted to write, but she definitely didn’t plan to be a lawyer or a law professor. She started as a political activist, and thought a law degree would help her understand politics and public policy. But she also loved school, and it seems she has never left. She received a PhD in history and a JD at Stanford, and has been teaching law and history at USC for almost 24 years. The wonderful interdisciplinary community at USC Gould School of Law (where she is the John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History and the Co-Director of the Center for Law, History, and Culture) has allowed her to combine her love of teaching and writing with work that can contribute to society beyond the academy.
Her research has been recognized and supported by the J. Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies (with a Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship and a Collaborative Research Fellowship with Alejandro), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Huntington Research Libraries, the Stanford Center for the Advancement of the Behavioral Sciences, and of course, USC. What Blood Won’t Tell won the James Willard Hurst Prize from the Law and Society Association; the Lillian Smith Award for the best book on the U.S. South and the struggle for racial justice; the American Political Science Association’s Best Book on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics; and was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title.
She is working on two projects right now, one on the uses of the history of slavery in contemporary law and politics in the United States and in Europe, and the other on race, civil rights, and conservatism in the last half-century. She recently edited a symposium in Law and History Review called “Slavery and the Boundaries of Legality, Past and Present,” (2017) and published an article titled “A Grassroots History of Colorblind Conservative Constitutionalism” in Law and Social Inquiry (2019).
At USC, Ariela chairs the Concerned Faculty of USC, a group that formed in 2018 that is working to restore transparency, accountability, and faculty governance at the university. She sits on the board of Saint Joseph Center, the leading homeless services organization in Los Angeles.
When she’s not writing or teaching or going to meetings, Ariela likes to run, bike, ski, and do yoga. She is the mother of two daughters and a mini Australian shepherd, and has been to every state except the Dakotas, and 36 countries on 5 continents.