One of my latest NPR commentary/News Tribune column.

ST. PAUL — Are Jews white?

Let me rephrase that. I don’t mean Jews of color, which include people of
Asian, Hispanic, Native American, African or even Australian Aboriginal
(there are a few) descent, who make up quite a bit of the world Jewish
population. No, I mean “normative” Jews of European descent.

Allen Goodman isn’t sure. A professor at Hampshire College in
Massachusetts, he’s president of the American Anthropological Association,
which developed the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit that premiered at
the Science Museum of Minnesota two weeks ago. Five years in the making,
the exhibit is booked solid at museums across the country through 2011.

“I’m Jewish,” Goodman said, and so are his parents. In their youth, he
said, “It’s iffy if they would have been classified as white.”

Yet Goodman said under today’s definitions, there’s little question about
his race. “I’m white but not them. The white group has expanded.”

Though it doesn’t concentrate much on Jewish lineage, the exhibit
similarly shows how racial classifications have changed over the years.


One display shows how, according to the U.S. Census, a person listed as
“mulatto” in 1850 would have been classified as “Negro” in 1970 and “White
and African American” in 2000.

All of these, the anthropologists say, are political definitions.
Physiologically, there’s no such thing as race, and the exhibit cites all
sorts of examples of supposedly race- specific physical attributes that
are shared by unrelated groups. It also debunks medical conditions wrongly
interpreted as racially based, such as sickle cell disease.

“The popular notion is that it is an African American disease,” Goodman
said. “When you look at the biology, we find it occurs in places all over
the world where malaria has been prevalent. People from the west coast of
Africa who immigrated to the U.S. have a higher propensity to show sickle
cell, but it ignores all of the people throughout the Mediterranean who
have exactly the same characteristics.”

Similar misconceptions pervade about Tay-Sachs syndrome, meaning no one
should assume that either disease only strikes blacks or Jews.

Other myths aren’t quite as deadly but are equally dead wrong. There are
far more black players are in the National Basketball Association than the
National Hockey League, but the reason is more social than biological; all
that’s required to play basketball is a relatively inexpensive basketball
and a half-court hoop stuck in the blacktop of every inner city
playground. Hitting the hockey rink means shelling out for skates, a
stick, helmet, pads and ice time.

None of this is new. What’s innovative about the exhibit is that it
interconnects the social aspects of race with science that destroys the
stereotypes.

I wonder if the exhibit isn’t the anthropologists’ way of paying penance
for the excesses of their cranium-measuring forebears a century ago. For
an idea how much damage “science” did then, take a look at “Wood’s Natural
History,” a 19th-century textbook that describes “the Caucasian race” as
“distinguished by the beautiful oval form of their heads [with] skin
varying from a light rosy white tint to a deep brown. … From this race all
ancient and modern civilized nations are descended, and they have always
been distinguished for superior intellectual and moral qualities.”

In contrast, “The Mongolian race … is distinguished by low stature,
projecting cheekbones, a depressed and retreating forehead [and] are
inferior in moral and intellectual qualities to those of the Caucasian,
and have made but little progress in civilization or literary pursuits.”

I’ll spare you the book’s physical description of the “Ethiopian race” and
cut straight to the intellectual: “Unendowed with mental faculties or
moral perception … , [if] compelled for a time to adopt the customs and
habits of civilized life, they always return to their original barbaric
mode of living.”

Why am I bringing all this up when it isn’t even in the exhibit? Because
we’re still suffering from the legacy of hate speech taught as scientific
fact. And even if science and society have evolved since then, we still
haven’t figured out what we are or are not and how to deal with each
other.

There’s another reason I’ve been thinking about the book; I just noticed
the bookplate and discovered it belonged to my great-grandmother, Bertha
Ullman, a student at Notre Dame College of Maryland in 1889.

That a Jewish women attended a very Catholic college where she was taught
from a racist textbook at a time when Jews were considered something less
than human illustrates that we have come a long way. But we still have far
to go.

Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune and a
commentator on National Public Radio’s “News & Notes.”