Tony Norman: Carnegie Museum exhibition gives race a proper look

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The only thing Americans dislike talking about more than class is race. When a racial controversy looms, the president will threaten to launch a "national discussion about race" until tempers cool, allowing a discreet return to previously scheduled programs with most of our dignity intact.

There's so much bad faith and ignorance surrounding the subject that it is almost impossible to have a constructive conversation about race outside of a trusted circle of friends, family or colleagues who may -- or may not -- share the same pigment and assumptions.

That's why a new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History feels like a bracing slap of cold reality on a hot day. "Race: Are We So Different?" is an audience-friendly, yet ambitious, examination that also includes an acknowledgment of the relationship between racial hierarchies, socio-economic standing and class in "classless," "post-racial" America and beyond.

The first few lines of the information placard at the entrance to the third-floor exhibition space establish the show's ideological bona fides: "Race is a recent invention. It's only a few hundred years old, in comparison to the lengthy span of human history."

Because "Race: Are We So Different?" is predicated on the scientific truth that there is no biological evidence supporting the idea of separate racial categories, the exhibit doesn't have the desperate feel of an earnest committee trying to disprove what had once been taken for granted by European scientists for centuries -- white superiority.

The exhibit, which is heavily interactive, makes clear that things we once identified as racial markers -- skin color variation, hair texture and other surface differences -- are the result of such disparate conditions as geography, the body's response to environmental adaptation around the world and the interplay of sunlight, folate and Vitamin D production.

I was quickly disabused of one racial myth I always assumed was correct -- that the sickle cell disease that afflicts so many African-Americans and other people of African descent is racially determined.

Contrary to the public service announcements I saw on television when I was a kid, the sickle cell trait is inherited by people of Middle Eastern, Indian and Mediterranean descent, too. It has never respected color.

For me, the best part of the "Race" exhibit is the straightforward way in which it deals with the taboo subject of structural inequality in this country. A booth labeled "There Goes the Neighborhood" addresses the legacy of housing discrimination without flinching from the fact that practices such as "red-lining" were legal and widely practiced for much of the last century.

The exhibit doesn't let us off the hook with the lie that red-lining is no longer with us. It shows how red-lining has morphed into an equally insidious practice called "racial steering," a tactic used by real estate companies and landlords to maintain property values by guiding minorities, even those with money, away from more "desirable" neighborhoods.

As it turns out, from 2002 to 2005 the Department of Housing and Urban Development tested the frequency of racial steering across the nation and found that the illegal practice happened 87 percent of the time to its minority testers. There's a reason why segregation continues to be perpetuated decades after landmark legislation and court decisions meant to mitigate its effect on society.

I wouldn't have minded if the exhibit had paid as much attention to class and economic inequality as it does to race, because that societal problem remains stubbornly resistant to introspection on a mass level.

The exhibit gets at some of these issues with its skillful critique of white privilege and by showing the financial difficulties of blacks in the 20th century, from inequality built into the Social Security program initially; the unequal disbursement of G.I. Bill benefits; labor union resistance to black membership; and minimum wage discrimination.

The legacy of much of that injustice is still with us through inferior schools, environmental racism, disproportionate prison representation and health care disparities.

Even as inequality in America increases, decimating the middle class and dragging folks who were once firmly ensconced in the "white" column into the economic morass that was once reserved for people of color, there is still a reluctance to talk about it.

Unlike the color of someone's skin, class and inequality is something we can do something about if we have the courage to pursue our collective self-interest.

Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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