What’s Really at Stake in the Controversy Over Elizabeth Warren’s Past Claims of Native American Ancestry

Posted in: Politics

Last week, Elizabeth Warren—the likely Democratic nominee for the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy—found herself on the defensive over charges that she had previously claimed to be part Native American.  Yet virtually nobody in Massachusetts will be choosing between Warren and incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown on the basis of issues involving federal policy regarding Native peoples.  So why was this story news?

In large part, the answer is politics.  Warren was the leading champion of endowing the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with robust powers, making her a hero to progressives and a bête-noire to the Republicans who blocked the possibility of her appointment to head that bureau.  Given the high-stakes battle for control of the Senate and the likely role that Warren in particular will play if elected, it is not surprising that Warren’s political opponents would seize on any potentially embarrassing detail of Warren’s past.

Still, the foregoing analysis leaves open the question of why this particular issue appears to have resonance.  In this column, I consider but then reject the suggestion of the Brown campaign that Warren’s conduct calls her integrity into question.  Instead, I argue that if this story proves to have legs, it will be because it reinforces popular uneasiness about certain features of affirmative action that conservatives have successfully used to drive a wedge between two Democratic constituencies: minority voters and working-class white voters.

The Claim, and the Truth, as Far as We Can Tell

For most of her professional career, Elizabeth Warren has been a law professor, first at the University of Houston, then at the University of Texas, then at the University of Pennsylvania, and since 1995, at Harvard.  Warren’s specialty is bankruptcy law.  She is clearly a distinguished scholar and a leading expert in the field.

Warren garnered national attention when she served as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), bringing an unusual combination of populism, common sense, and sharp-eyed business acumen to the task.  She was also a leading advocate for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

It does not appear that Warren trumpeted her alleged Native American roots in her academic or public policy work.  She did from time to time mention them, including in the directory of the Association of American Law Schools—which is essentially an annual telephone book of American law professors.  Warren and Harvard have denied that Warren sought or received any special consideration in hiring or promotion because of her Native roots.

What are those roots?  Warren has said that her family told her about Native ancestors, and genealogist Christopher Child has identified records showing that one great-great-great grandmother of Warren was Cherokee, making her 1/32 Cherokee.  That very slight degree of Native ancestry would not qualify Warren for tribal membership, but it does undermine the view that her claimed Native ancestry was an out-and-out lie.

The Integrity Issue

The Brown campaign and some commentators have suggested that Warren’s exaggeration (at best) of her Native roots casts doubt on her integrity.  That charge, however, is flimsy.  There is no indication that Warren ever invoked her Native roots in connection with her public service.

Of course, as scandal after scandal attests, personal misdeeds can shed negative light on the character or judgment of any particular individual.  Thus, a lie or exaggeration in one’s personal life could indicate that the liar or exaggerator would be less than scrupulously honest in his or her public life.

But if so, one surely needs some account of how the personal translates into the public: Newt Gingrich’s defense of traditional personal morality despite his own serial infidelity bespeaks hypocrisy; John Edwards’ own infidelity also bespeaks hypocrisy and may have veered into criminality; Anthony Weiner’s recklessness in tweeting sexually suggestive photos bespeaks a general lack of judgment and a certain creepiness to boot; and so on.

By contrast, Warren’s identification with her Native roots, however thin they may be, looks fully consistent with her tendency to champion the underdog.  Her family told her that she was partly descended from Native people, and she accepted their statements.  Her failure to demand a DNA test or a genealogical chart tells us virtually nothing about her character.

The Lurking Issue: Affirmative Action

Nothing, that is, unless Warren exaggerated her Native roots as a means of career advancement.  For then, Warren could be characterized as a cynical careerist.

To be clear, there is no credible evidence that Warren ever exaggerated her Native roots in the hope that institutions like Harvard would want to hire and retain her for the purpose of making their faculty appear more diverse.  But even if Warren did not collaborate in such a deception, it is nonetheless possible that Harvard or one of the other law schools at which Warren taught “counted” her Native status as an asset.

Minorities, and especially Native Americans, are underrepresented among the faculty of Harvard Law School—as they are at nearly every other elite institution in America.  That is hardly surprising, given genocidal policy towards Native peoples stretching back over five centuries.  Nor is it surprising that, as with other members of disadvantaged minority groups, Harvard (and other institutions) would be eager to hire and promote highly-qualified Native Americans when possible.

Under federal law, programs of affirmative action for minority faculty can only be justified if they remedy specific acts of discrimination perpetrated by the relevant institution, or serve to foster greater intellectual diversity.  In fact, proponents of affirmative action often have additional reasons for seeking to hire people of color: They may also seek to remedy discrimination in a broader sense; they may value integration for its own sake; they may wish to provide role models for students of color; and so forth.

But whatever the reasons offered in support of affirmative action, such programs have long been regarded with suspicion by much of the public.  Among the arguments against them are these: Affirmative action is unfair because it makes innocent third parties pay the price to remedy discrimination they did not cause; it is counterproductive because it leads outsiders to question the credentials of its beneficiaries; and it reproduces the very harm it seeks to remedy, using a two-wrongs-make-a-right logic.

In addition, opponents of affirmative action sometimes argue that even if it can be justified in principle, it benefits the wrong people in practice: children of minority professionals who were raised in relative privilege, rather than poor children who were raised in the inner city (or in the case of Native Americans, on reservations).

Defenders of affirmative action push back against the “wrong people benefit” argument by noting that minorities often experience discrimination even if they are economically well off.  But it is substantially more difficult to push back against that argument when the beneficiary of affirmative action is not even identifiably a member of any minority group.  If Elizabeth Warren, for example, received any career benefit from being 1/32 Cherokee, then that fact may be invoked to call into question the whole idea of affirmative action.

Did Warren receive any such benefit?  Again, it appears that she did not.  But the beauty of this “issue” for the Brown campaign, and for Warren’s political foes more broadly, is that it does not really matter whether she said or did anything to gain advantage from her slight Native ancestry.  Merely making affirmative action a salient issue in the election threatens to harm the Warren campaign.

Why?  Because the natural constituency for Warren includes minority voters—who strongly favor Democrats—and middle-class and working-class whites, whose economic interests Warren has championed.  But the issue of affirmative action splits that coalition, with minorities generally favoring the policy as a means of overcoming what they experience as ongoing and pervasive discrimination, while middle-class and working-class whites regard these policies as systematically devaluing their own interests.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but by raising the question of Warren’s Native-ness, Brown and the Republicans are attempting to reuse a strategy that Republicans have used at least since candidate Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy: Unleash white voters’ racial resentments to induce them to vote against their larger economic interests.

Will it work?  Possibly.  Although Massachusetts in 2012 is hardly Mississippi in 1968, we do well to recall that some of the fiercest opposition to court-ordered busing occurred in 1970s Boston.  Much has changed in Massachusetts in the ensuing decades, but in going after Warren for the “Cherokee issue,” the Brown campaign is betting that much has also remained the same.  We will find out whether that bet pays off in November.

Posted in: Politics