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

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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

  • JoshN1

    “So why was this story news?”

    You are overly dismissive of this story when it has an obvious angle that you don’t address. It is indisputable that Harvard used Elizabeth Warren being a Native American as evidence of their diversity. Yet, Elizabeth Warren – both culturally and physically – was indisputable of European descent. She could neither provide non-Native Americans with Native American perspective nor help Harvard address any unique needs of Native Americans.

    Harvard University claimed that Elizabeth Warren provided diversity…but what real diversity did she actually bring?

  • RogerClegg

    Re “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.”  The “intellectual diversity” argument for racial discrimination in employment has never been recognized by any federal court (see Third Circuit rejection of it in Piscataway), and it is unlikely that it would be; Title VII is the applicable statute, and it admits of no “BFOQ” for race, to give just one problem.  Likewise, the Supreme Court has rejected the societal/historical discrimination justification (e.g., Croson), the integration/discrimination “for its own sake” justification (quoting Powell in Bakke), and the role model justification (Wygant).  so Harvard is left with having to argue that it is “remedy[ing] specific acts of discrimination perpetrated by [Harvard itself],” which it risible.

  • Blessedkids

    Screw you and your assumption we are trying to ’cause’ white voters resentment on the populace…you liberals need to stop and look in your fair land mirror that you see all things thru that supposedly make you oh so much better than anyone else when you have a group blatantly out to cause racial unrest and have stated so not to mention are literally setting themselves up as vigilanti squads to kill whitey…You liberls need to pull the plank out of your own eyes b/4 looking for the splinter in anothers!! Hypocrits!!!

  • Hogwash. This is as much like the “southern strategy”  as bringing up Mit Romney’s dog is about animal cruelty. It’s just doing what people in tight races do: getting any toe-hold against an opponent one can. to say it is exploiting “white voters’ racial resentments to induce them to vote against their larger economic interests” is absurd. She was caught telling what was, at best, a half-truth. Live with it and move on. This article should be titled “The Apologia.”

  • rclegg

    Re
    “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.” The “intellectual diversity” argument for racial discrimination
    in employment has never been recognized by any federal court (see Third Circuit
    rejection of it in Piscataway), and it is unlikely that it would be; Title VII
    is the applicable statute, and it admits of no “BFOQ” for race, to
    give just one problem. Likewise, the Supreme Court has rejected the
    societal/historical discrimination justification (e.g., Croson), the
    integration/discrimination “for its own sake” justification (quoting
    Powell in Bakke), and the role model justification (Wygant). so Harvard is left
    with having to argue that it is “remedy[ing] specific acts of
    discrimination perpetrated by [Harvard itself],” which it risible.

  • Thomas Ellis

    Sorry to disagree, but…I disagree.
     
    Warren’s claim of Native American heritage for professional gain is a non-issue, but for the fact that she lacks such a heritage.  If she had claimed it, and it stood up, then nobody on either side would be mentioning it in this type of race.  Mr. Dorf’s argument seems to be, “When white voters figure out that she’s whiter than she thought she was, they’ll reject her because she used to think she was a minority.”
     
    Where it becomes a dividing issue isn’t by causing white voters to reject her for being Native American…she isn’t, so the white voters aren’t going to vote for her opponent as the fairer-skinned alternative.  Rather, white voters may turn from her because she lied for gain.  We can argue about whether or not that’s what really happened, but that argument itself is sort of the point.  If she’s spending her efforts defending against these allegations, she’s not getting her message across.  The more time she spends discussing her Native American heritage, or lack thereof, the less time she has to tout her accomplishments.
     
    Non-white voters may also reject her, because by claiming heritage she lacked, she not only advanced her own career, but also “stole” an opportunity.  Affirmative action is supposed to provide more opportunities for minorities, so a white person wrongfully claiming minority status robs those minorities of those opportunities.  Again, the charge itself may be flimsy, but the fact is that we’re discussuing those charges, rather than what a good candidate she may be.

  • Zippie

    Pretty silly article. You are trying to portray a ‘southern strategy’ here, where there is really just an issue of integrity. For someone to claim to be Indian based on family lore is pretty silly, especially for a lawyer. I know how I’m answering all those prying census questions next time, that’s for sure.

  • Sparrowtooth

    The underdog?  As an American Indian that holds a blood quantum card from BIA; saying you think you are something…sort of and using this as a credential is an insult to   American Indians…just because there are so few of us please don’t discount this minority and use it merely for the racial resentment political cards.  Let’s say you are Jewish…you go around claiming you are maybe Jewish…are cited as Jewish, make speeches about your Jewishness…but you find out that really your great great great grandfather was helping persecute Jews.  Does that resonate?  Does any one get that American Indians follow politics and/or object to someone capitalizing on a possible claim of being (possibly) an Indian and actually they are not?  There is no conclusive proof that Ms. Warren is any or any fraction of Cherokee or Delaware Indian.  Academe with no direct history or experience with Indian scholars or people can speculate or pontificate about what is at stake in regards to MS Warren’s alleged Native American Ancestry and what that means outside of ivory towers.

  • Lawyers take many words to avoid truth. She claimed to be a Native American for preferential treatment. She lied. Harvard touted her as one of their minority hires, she did not correct them.  She is a snake, but then again, the degrees of snakiness among lawyers is infinite.

  • Grant554

    The so-called “evidence” that Warren is 1/32 Cherokee is from a non-original application for marriage, which is not considered official.  Recently uncovered census data from that period plainly shows the ancestors in question were white, making her a Caucasian with no Indian blood whatsoever.  The point the author fails to make is that the unofficial document was only discovered recently and Warren has made these claims of Indian ancestry for decades based on “family lore”.  Her lack of interest in finding actual evidence of her ancestry is telling when it comes to being listed as a minority professor by these schools, as is her dropping the reference when she attained her ultimate objective of being hired by Harvard (and now running for the Senate).  Sometimes actions speak louder than words. 

    The author says there is no credible evidence that Warren ever used this for a hiring advantage but if so then why does Warren refuse to allow the release of her employment applications to these various schools if she did not have something to hide (Scott Brown has released all his employment records)?  Why did these schools list her as a minority professor?  Why won’t Harvard or Warren answer any questions as to whether she is the one they list as the sole Native American professor at Harvard as recently as last year?  There are still too many unanswered questions to draw definitive conclusions but it looks and smells like a cover-up.

    The author shows his bias by painting this in the best possible light for Warren, brushing off the obvious questions about her honesty and integrity, and making it instead all about how the GOP will divide the Democrat vote by using affirmative action as a wedge issue.  I predict real journalists who understand their job is to be objective and uncover the truth will find more evidence that Warren did in fact use her still unproven Native American heritage for an advantage in hiring.  If she continues to refuse to release these documents then I think she’ll be considered guilty by the majority of conservative Democrats and Independents who will decide the outcome of this election.

  • You missed the obvious implication… that there is a high profile story out there that demonstrates the absurdity of “checkbox diversity” right when SCOTUS is about to revisit AA with regard to college admissions.

  • My belief about what is going on here is that the neo-GOP money boys are playing both ends against the middle–and they have the money to do it, too. It would be interesting if we knew where that money was coming from, but that’s the LAST thing they want to publicize.

    On one hand, they are buying lottery tickets, where each attack ad might become a mega-jumbo winner if it somehow catches fire. The best example might be Governor Dean’s so-called scream. Hey, have you ever expressed your frustration? Have you ever had a video of that expression used to destroy your career? Free speech of destruction?

    The other hand is the death of 1,000 cuts, where each attack ad is flipping a few voters away from the target. In a close election, each flip is potentially worth two votes, one subtracted from the target and one added to the other side. The amazing thing is that the elections can be so nearly balanced when there are such vast differences between the candidates.

    Meanwhile, Romney will sit back and deny “coordination” with any of, while his “Midas touch of whiplash” completely confuses the value of reality. At this point, I’m pretty well convinced that the only sincere belief that Romney has is one that he’ll never express (outside of a pastiche video): “Vote for me, so that government of the corporations, by the lawyers, for the richest 0.1% of Americans, shall rule the earth.”

  • Arbfl30

    Very simple, she’s a cheet, but to the liberal left, it doesn’t mattter if the cause is “just”.

  • Profstovall

    Wow, if this is the best defense of Elizabeth Warren’s use of the minority status, she is in more trouble than I thought. John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, and Athony Weiner all paid heavy prices for their faults you mention. And if Harvard did not consider her claim to be Native American when hiring her, why did it tout the inclusion of a Native American in literature claiming their diverse faculty?

  • Alone

    “Did Warren receive any such benefit? Again, it appears that she did not.  ”

    ahh, she may not, but Harvard, Penn and Texas certainly did,  by claiming they had an historically underpresented minority on faculty, when in fact they didn’t.  If her employer benefited from her deception, even if she did not, fraud was still committed against the public…

  • Put a BIG FOLK in Warren, She’s done, Ms. Pinoccio-Hontus will lucky to get 30%; especially since Howie Carr continuously reminds all of Massachusetts on Granny’s daily exploits!