I’ve been thinking about this since the story broke that Senator Scott Brown and the Boston Herald had uncovered what they thought was Elizabeth Warren’s deception: She had checked off the Native American box when in law school and Harvard Law School had listed her as Native American in some directory a number of years back. First, I don’t think she and her campaign handled it well at first saying she didn’t remember ever telling Harvard about her racial heritage, but saying she did have an ancestor who was Native American. Second, why is Scott Brown doing this?
Warren has made a better answer since her initial reaction, but she would have been a lot better off if she had just said “I’m from Oklahoma and have some Cherokee and Delaware ancestors and I’m proud of it.” But checking that box is always fraught with pitfalls for anyone who is mixed race. This is the Tiger Woods dilemma. What box do you check and how do you decide? Back in 1990 when I was a census worker we were told that a person was whatever they said they were. I have a family story my aunt told me to explain why my hair is naturally curly in humidity even through I am clear Asian. She said that I had a Portuguese ancestor from long ago who had had a liaison with a great, great, etc. grandmother. True? Who knows. But I think it is clear that Warren does have the right to claim Native American heritage.
Steven Senne/Associated Press
And then I read this very thoughtful piece in the New York Times by Kevin Noble Maillard. Titled Elizabeth Warren’s Birther Moment, It begins
If you are 1/32 Cherokee and your grandfather has high cheekbones, does that make you Native American? It depends. Last Friday, Republicans in Massachusetts questioned the racial ancestry of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate candidate. Her opponent, Senator Scott Brown, has accused her of using minority status as an American Indian to advance her career as a law professor at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas. The Brown campaign calls her ties to the Cherokee and Delaware nations a “hypocritical sham.”
In a press conference on Wednesday, Warren defended herself, saying, “Native American has been a part of my story, I guess since the day I was born, I don’t know any other way to describe it.” Despite her personal belief in her origins, her opponents have seized this moment in an unnecessary fire drill that guarantees media attention and forestalls real debate.
This tactic is straight from the Republican cookbook of fake controversy. First, you need a rarefied elected office typically occupied by a certain breed of privileged men. Both the Presidency and the Senate fit this bill. Second, add a bit of interracial intrigue. It could be Kenyan economists eloping with Midwestern anthropologists, or white frontiersmen pairing with indigenous women. Third, throw in some suspicion about their qualifications and ambitions. Last but not least, demand documentation of ancestry and be dissatisfied upon its receipt. Voila! You have a genuine birther movement.
In this case, Brown seems to be claiming that Warren’s success is all because she checked that box. Of course when Warren first came to public notice working for Congress monitoring the financial bailout and making sure consumers weren’t hurt no one questioned her smarts or her ability. Neither did all those Harvard students she has taught over the years. Neither did anyone she worked with when she was doing her famous early study of bankruptcy. The whole idea that she owes her success to her having checked that box is laughable. More from Maillard:
Even within Indian Country, the meaning of race and citizenship is contested. And now the Brown campaign wants to dictate Warren’s own belief in her identity. According to the Brown campaign, Warren could not be Indian because she is blonde, rich and most of all, a Harvard law professor. Her 1/32 Cherokee ancestry, sufficient for tribal citizenship, is not enough for the Republican party. To most people, she appears as white as, well, Betty White, but to the Scott Brown campaign, she is just Dancing With Wolves.
The Brown campaign asserts that Warren knowingly classified herself as Native American in the 1990s when Harvard weathered sharp criticism for its lack of faculty diversity. During this time, they argue, Warren relied upon this classification to enhance her employment opportunities and to improve Harvard’s numbers. Her faculty mentors at Harvard deny this and assert that the law school hired Warren without any knowledge of her ancestry.
For the Cherokee Nation, Warren is “Indian enough”; she has the same blood quantum as Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker. For non-Natives, this may be surprising. They expect to see “high cheekbones,” as Warren described her grandfather as having, or tan skin. They want to know of pow wows, dusty reservations, sweat lodges, peyote and cheap cigarettes. When outsiders look at these ostensibly white people as members of Native America, they don’t see minorities. As a result, Warren feels she must satisfy these new birthers and justify her existence.
As a law professor and Native American himself, Maillard concludes that Harvard could not have used Warren’s status to promote her since
Looked at from the inside, however, the Warren controversy is all new. When the Brown campaign accused Elizabeth Warren of touting herself as American Indian to advance her career, this was news to Native law professors. We have a good eye for welcoming faculty to the community and identifying promising scholars. We know where people teach, what they have published and we honor them when they die. Harvard Law School named its first Native American tenured professor? Really? In our small indigenous faculty town, we would have heard about it already.
My own conclusion is that Warren checked that box somewhere way back. She has said she was hoping to meet others like her by doing so. She has every right to call herself Native American. Someone at Harvard picked up on the checked box and noted it in the directory, but Harvard never made a big deal about it and they could have. Hey, maybe someone messed up and forgot to announce the appointment of a Native American.
Scott Brown has nothing of substance on which to talk so why not create a birther controversy. He is the one playing the race card. It is tight race and if he can convince a few voters that Elizabeth Warren is untrustworthy and of mixed race ancestry, it might just make a difference.