Elizabeth Warren was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, home of the University of Oklahoma. We still relate to it as Indian territory, the terminus of the Trail of Tears. This week Warren released a presidential campaign-style biography introducing herself to the country. The video discusses DNA evidence confirming family lore of an American Indian ancestor on her mother's side of the family. Her video aims to neutralize political attacks arising from the fact that she checked a box describing herself as a "minority" in a law school directory, and was touted as a Native American faculty by Harvard University in the mid-1990s.
One aspect of our American identity is that we are a melting pot. Peoples from all over the world have come here. Asians traveling across the Bering land bridge ~12,000 years ago fanned out across North America and South America. Europeans began arriving starting in the 1500's, Africans in the 1600's, Asians in the 1800's, South Americans in the 1900's. We have brought different creeds and customs: shamans and their ceremonial practices, pilgrims, puritans, huguenots, catholics, orishas, shinto buddhists, hindus, confucians, Jews, and Muslims. We have brought different features, skin color, temperaments. And we've been intermixing for 400 years.
We have come together in this new world around a set of lofty ideas and ideals (freedom of speech, religion, association; liberty, self-reliance, hard work, equality of opportunity, equality before the law, and justice). But these ideals have clashed with the cold reality of the human condition. The fact that we've arrived here at different times, under different circumstances, some with great advantages, both earned and unearned, and others with great disadvantage--all this makes the smooth implementation of our ideals difficult. It roils the juices of the melting pot. We may be Scots American, but our mother is German, one set of grandparents Dutch, or Chinese, or African. We call Barack Obama our "first African American President," although he never lived in Africa, and was born in Hawaii to a white Kansan woman "largely" of English descent with some German, Irish, Scottish, Swiss, and Welsh descent. His Kenyan father was not in the picture after age three.
Obama's story is not unusual. It is the American story. We hang significance on his blackness only because we are human and thus xenophobic. We get confused because our identities get packaged in small bits like data traveling along the internet, without a central processing unit to put it all neatly back together.
It should be no surprise to anyone, and it should be in no way remarkable, that Elizabeth Warren has a native American ancestor among her mostly European ancestors, or that this should leave a mark on her and her family's identity and conception of self.
Consider Brad DeLong's story. "On a thousand year timescale the human race really is just one big unhappy family," he observed. DeLong can trace his lineage on his mother's side in an unbroken fashion back to 1543 England and the grandparents of a Pilgrim (Ezekiel Richardson) who married Susanna Bradford in Massachusetts--the daughter of Governor William Bradford of the Mayflower. And on his father's side he can trace his lineage back to his "great-great-great grandfather James DeLong who, before the Civil War and before he left his bones in Wichita, had used his status as an Ohio judge to free three slaves whose masters had been unwise enough to briefly set them on the north bank of the Ohio River." It would occur to no one that there is something improper about Brad relating to this history, or that he should identify with it, even if the DNA of these ancestors has long ago dissolved into the ether. But then Brad isn't running for higher office.
Enter Scott Brown and Donald TrumpWarren released her video, of course, not because she is trying to make something of her Native American heritage, but because "opposition research" during her 2012 Senate campaign against Scott Brown in Massachusetts sussed out that she had listed herself as "minority" in a survey for a directory published by the Association of American Law Schools. Scott Brown falsely attacked Warren for 1) exploiting her heritage to get a leg up, and 2) that she lied about having any Native American heritage. The issue was used as a shield against Warren's criticisms by Trump during the 2016 campaign. As reported by CNN in 2016 Brown also continued his attacks during the 2016 campaign:
"She's not Native American, she's not 1/32nd, she has no Native American background, except for what her family told her," Brown told reporters on a conference call hosted by the Republican National Committee, hours after Hillary Clinton and Warren appeared at an event together. "The easy answer, as you all know, is that Harvard and Penn can release those records, she can authorize the release of those records, she can take a DNA test, she can release the records herself. There's never been any effort," Brown said."During the Massacchussets 2012 campaign, Brown supporters were caught on video at an outdoor rally making faux Indian war whoops and tomahawk chops. During the '16 campaign, Trump tweeted "Let's properly check goofy Elizabeth Warren's records to see if she is Native American. I say she's a fraud!" he tweeted in May 2016. [She had called Trump “goofy” in his #MAGA hat] Trump sharpened his attacks as that campaign heated up, telling NBC News: "She made up her heritage, which I think is racist. I think she's a racist, actually because what she did was very racist." He offered to pay one million dollars to a charity of Warren's choosing if she could prove she had Indian ancestry.
Professor David Bernstein at the Antonin Scalia School of Law tried to smear Warren with innuendo that she was angling for advantage with her minority listing in the directory. He's that kind of guy, as revealed by this hostile wiki.
But Warren Pretty Conclusively Did not Play Ethnicity for AdvantageWarren has made the relevant documents from her law school application and her time at the University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard available at her website. Here is what those documents indicate:
- Rutgers law school application, February 1973: Warren identified herself as White and specifically affirmed she was not seeking to be admitted under Rutger's program for minority students.
- University of Houston, September '78. In her first law school teaching gig, Warren was identified as "white."
- University of Texas employee information form lists Warren as a white female. Her appointment form (1981) lists her ethnicity as "white."
- University of Pennsylvania. Warren changed her classification from "white/caucasian" to "Native American or Alaskan Native" on December 6, 1989 "nearly three years after offered tenure."
- Harvard '93. After a stint as visiting professor, Warren was offered a position as tenured faculty. The Crimson article discussing the appointment remarked on how this diversified the faculty by appointing a woman, but lamented that there are still no women of color and considered Warren as "white."
The documents, testimonials, reports, and videos at the archive, together with her campaign style video released last week, seem to place beyond any reasonable question that Warren considered herself "white/caucasian" as she applied to law school and obtained each of her law school teaching positions, that she was considered white by those institutions, and she did not seek advantage in employment by claiming minority status .
Warren's Self-Identification as Minority
Warren's archive at her website includes a report from a Harvard affirmative action person, dated December 15, 1995, "nearly three years after Warren was offered tenure." It reads as follows:
In compiling the statistics for the annual Affirmative Action Report for the University, I spoke with professor Warren about her ethnic status. She stated that she self-identified as a Native American. She has listed herself with minority status for at least the past four years (my total list of AALS Directories) (sic) with AALS. Therefore, we have in our current statistics listed her as a Native American.This occurred after Harvard University received criticism for lack of ethnic diversity among its faculty. In a report compiled by Politifact they indicate that AALS listed Warren as a "minority" law teacher each year from 1986 (the first year the group asked about minority status) to 1994. "The directories don’t indicate which minority group a person claiming minority status belonged to," said Politifact, "so it would not be obvious to schools or other readers that Warren was thinking of her Native American roots."
The Arbitrariness of Census Forms
We have become accustomed to both governments and institutions collecting census forms that ask about ethnicity. In our melting-pot reality, such self-categorizations have an unavoidably arbitrary quality about them. The U.S. Government 2010 Census form handles the problem of diverse ancestry by saying "Check one or more boxes ....." By contrast, the statistics gathered by the Office of Federal Compliance Program, requires that one, and only one, box be checked.* And they provide no clear standard for which box should be checked: a box can be checked based on the group to which a person "appears to belong", "identifies with," "or is regarded in the community as belonging." This suggest three different standards: 1) objective outward appearance, 2) subjective identity, or 3) a sense of the community.
When Warren checked the form for the AALS directory she was using a subjective identity standard. This was not a radical act. Warren was checking a box, presumably in the privacy of her office, while thinking of her private subjective identity with her Native American ancestors. Although the directory is published, the only information it appeared to contain was "minority" without specifying what kind of minority. In addition, the directory is a specialty document not likely to be consulted by the public at large--unless, of course, you decide to run for the Senate.
Racial Identity Theft?
"She made up her heritage, which I think is racist," tweeted Trump. That is water under the bridge. The DNA test Warren revealed this week pretty clearly indicates she in fact has a Native American ancestor in her mother's lineage, six to ten generations back. She did not make it up. Trump has reneged on his offer to pay a million dollars. "Who cares about DNA," he responded when challenged by a reporter.
Warren explains in her video that this Native American heritage was held against her mother by her father's family when they were courting. As illustrated by Brad DeLong's story, the half-life of family lore (like "one of my ancestors was Governor William Bradford of the Mayflower") is longer than the half-life of our DNA.
Last December, after Trump referred to Warren as "Pocahontas" during a ceremony arranged for the Navajo Code Talkers, Rebecca Nagle, a young Cherokee activist (of mixed race), wrote an angry article in Think Progress arguing with Trumpian rigor that Warren was "misappropriating Native identity for her own economic and political gain," while at the same time complaining that Warren has been too low-key about her Indian identity for her liking. She penned a faux mea culpa she impudently suggested Warren should issue:
"I am deeply sorry to the Native American people who have been greatly harmed by my misappropriation of Cherokee identity. ... In my family, there is an oral history of being Cherokee, however, research on my genealogy going back over 150 years does not reveal a single Native ancestor. Like many Americans who grew up with family members claiming to be Cherokee, I now know that my family’s stories were based on myth rather than fact."
This week after Warren released her DNA test confirming that she does in fact have Native American ancestry, Nagle doubled down, undeterred, on Matt Thompson's podcast at The Atlantic. She accused Warren of "racial identity theft;" she again called that Warren should apologize for having the audacity to subjectively identify as Cherokee, even in light of her Native American ancestor.
At Democracy Now, Amy Goodman and her crew reported that Native Americans across the country criticized Warren’s decision to use a DNA test to assert her Native American heritage, and they referred to Chuck Hoskin Jr., secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation, who said, “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong.”
Indian identity should be determined solely through formal tribal membership say these critics. It's a troubling and extreme position. The 2010 U.S. census reported 5.9 million Americans who identify as Native American, or partly Native American (including Alaskan). Approximately 2.9 million identified as Native American or Alaskan alone. Formal tribal membership among all the tribes, according to the 2010 census is only 3.4 million. Rebbecca Nagle and her fellow critics, therefore, implicitly accuse 2.5 million (or 42%) of those who identified as Native American on the 2010 census as fakes who have no business claiming any kind of Indian heritage. That's chutzpah.
None of This is Warren's Doing
I don't begrudge Warren her identification with her Native American heritage. Even if we take note, however, that it is a bit unusual (and perhaps odd) to check a box marking yourself as a "minority" on the strength of one unidentified ancestor 6-10 generations back and some family lore, it's a harmless and largely private issue. We are talking about it for only one reason: Scott Brown tried to exploit the issue to smear Warren with false innuendo's and false accusations in 2012, and Trump has gleefully picked up the torch.
With her video release and by releasing all relevant records she could get her hands on, Warren is attempting to do what Hillary failed to do with her emails: get the gum off the shoe. We'll see if this proactive approach makes a difference.
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* The federal requirements were spelled out in an exhibit in one of the University of Pennsylvania documents in the Warren archive at her website. "The concept of race ( ) used by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (O.F.C.C.P.) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.) does not denote clear-cut scientific definitions of anthropological origins," says the definition. Each employee or candidate, it goes on, "must be identified as belonging to one, and only one, of five broad racial/ethnic categories defined by federal authorities. A candidate may be included in the group to which he or she appears to belong, identifies with, or is regarded in the community as belonging."