Elizabeth Warren and the race card

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.

Elizabeth Warren at a campaign stop in Shrewsbury, Mass. on APril 29.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.

Where are the Republican Ideas?

The Democrats have large majorities in the House and Senate.  The President is a Democrat.  I believe the majority of governors are also now Democrats.  And being Democrats, they are bickering among themselves about the details of things they all agree need to be done.  It seems to me this would be a perfect opportunity for the Republicans to offer a substantial plan on, say health care.  Instead, we have the birther movement.  Newsweek has published the President’t birthcertificate to celebrate his birthday.

But the birthers are sure this is fake.

Back to health care.  Congress is back home this month and holding town meetings.  Instead of offering alternative and maybe asking some reasonable questions, the Republican strategy is to scream and disrupt these meetings.  In fairness to them, this is not a tactic they invented (as much as Dick Armey’s lobbying firm might want to think they did).  Chris Hayes  in his blog in the Nation looks at the situation this way

I’m on a team in American politics: I’m proudly, vigorously on the left. So there’s no need to bend over backwards to be formally consistent. That said, intellectual honesty requires one to separate out one’s formal objections from substantive ones and I’ve been given pause by the remarks of some right-wing activists like Jon Henke. He and others have been saying: wait a sec, when the left shows up and makes noise somewhere it’s activism, but when the right does it it’s thuggery and mob rule?

So after discussing the issue on Maddow last night, I’ve been asking myself, aside from the deep substantive opposition I have to the tea-baggers’ ideological agenda (and the insane hypocrisy of people on Medicare screaming about the dangers of government-run health care), what, exactly, my beef is?

I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with the tactics of those people who, with the facilitation of large monied interests, are organizing and shouting down their opponents at town hall meetings. But one thing should be clear: these are the tactics of a small, motivated, enraged and engaged minority. The footage of recent town hall scrums remind me, actually, of ACT-UP actions back in NYC when I was growing up. ACT-UP, the AIDS and gay rights group that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, was impassioned and angry and used dramatic confrontational action to great public effect. They were a vanguard. They were a small, tightly coordinated impassioned minority. And they were fundamentally on the right side of history.

What frustrates me, however, is that no one in the press confused ACT-UP with broader public opinion. No pundits said “the public is clearly feeling rising unease about government inaction on AIDS, as evidenced by the latest ACT-UP protest.” Why? Because they were gay, and they had AIDS and they didn’t look like “average citizens” or “heartland” voters.

At their root, the town hall protests are a very similar phenomenon. I think these people, unlike ACT-UP, are wrong. Deeply wrong. (They’re also not literally fighting for their lives because of a homophobic and indifferent government, but that’s neither here nor there). But they’re a small, tightly coordinated, enraged minority. They want to scream and fuss, it’s a free country, as they say.

The problem is the overwhelming instinct on the part of pundits and the MSM to look, and see old white men in overalls and Legionnaire hats and think they are watching someone give voice to the sentiments of broad swaths of the electorate. And it’s just not true. What we’re seeing at these events are the voices of radicals, extremists and zealots.

Harold Myerson writing in the Washington Post points out that the protesters are overwhemingly not people of color.

Last weekend, right-wing Republicans stormed a number of such meetings across the country, shouting down members of the House and, in Philadelphia, Sen. Arlen Specter and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. In Austin, protesters blocked Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s car and made it impossible for him to talk to constituents about such matters as appointments to military academies.

What’s particularly curious about these two protests is that they took place on very liberal turf — Philadelphia and Austin — yet the local liberals and people of color seemed absent. Philadelphia is a heavily African American city, yet one strains to see any blacks among the protesters on the YouTube clips. The activists who have been whipped into a frenzy, and who have dominated the recess meetings so far, appear to be conservative whites.

The question, as Meyerson goes on to ask, is why aren’t people of color, the young folks who worked for Obama, the progressives and the liberals turning out for the town hall meetings?   Meyerson again

When future historians look back at this passage in our nation’s history, I suspect they’ll conclude that this Obama-isn’t-American nuttiness refracted the insecurities and, in some cases, the hatred that a portion of conservative white America felt about having a black president and about the transformation of what many thought of as their white nation into a genuinely multiracial republic. But whatever the reasons, a mobilized minority is making a very plausible play to thwart a demobilized majority.

So we have a black President that one whole segment of the population (77% of Americans think he is a citizen but only 42% of Republicans think he is)  thinks is not really not President trying to reverse the slide into economic inequality and to promote racial equality at the same time.  This is a time when we should be having great debates about ideas not screaming at each other about where the President was born.

A genuine debate about ideas would help create better legislation and make the Democrats sharpen their ideas.  Maybe it would get those of us who support health care reform out to town hall meetings to talk about ideas.  But, unfortunately, the Republican party seems to be out of ideas.