Whoever advised Senator Warren that releasing her DNA results would put to rest the controversy over her claimed Native American ancestry should be fired. Rather than settle the matter once and for all, the results have raised more questions about the presumptive presidential candidate’s integrity with respect to matters of race and ethnicity.
According to her own hired expert, Warren had an indigenous ancestor “in the range of 6-10 generations ago.” This makes her, at best, 1/64th indigenous, and possibly as little as 1/1024th. Further, it is unclear whether this strain comes from an indigenous ancestor in North or South America, which makes her claim to be part Cherokee and part Delaware highly unreliable.
Not to be deterred, Warren claims that the test results provide “strong evidence” of her Native American heritage.
I have no doubt that Warren’s mother told her earnestly that there was a Native American ancestor in her family tree. We all have heard family stories passed down through the generations that may be apocryphal or exaggerated. It is human nature to believe the tales told us by trusted and beloved relatives and to weave them into the fabric of our personal stories. That Warren did so is not a moral failing.
But such tales belong in the realm of family lore, not in the realm of racial preferences. The reason we are talking about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry today—more than six years after the story originally broke—is because she used this family story to boost her chances of obtaining teaching jobs at a time when elite law schools were desperate to hire racial and ethnic minorities.
Harvard Law School was no exception.
In the early 1990s, HLS was a hotbed of left-wing agitation. I was there and remember well the explosive protests and sit-ins that erupted over a lack of diversity on the faculty. In April 1992, scores of protestors demonstrated outside Dean Robert Clark’s office, some of them wearing masks of Clark’s face. Nine students (my closest friend among them) refused to leave the Dean’s office for over 25 hours. Their specific demand? That the administration hire a faculty member who was a “woman of color.”
After the protest broke up, Dean Clark filed disciplinary charges against the disruptive students. But the administrative hearing to determine the fate of the “Griswold 9,” as they came to call themselves, turned into a circus. Jesse Jackson issued a plea for leniency, and hundreds of spectators filled the hearing room to watch students turn the tables on Dean Clark and effectively put Harvard on trial for discrimination.
It was against this backdrop of race and gender activism that Elizabeth Warren arrived in Cambridge. Then a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, she came to Harvard as a visiting professor (that is, on a trial basis). During this time, Warren categorized herself as Native American and was deemed a minority in a professional directory used by law schools for recruiting purposes. Warren says she classified herself this way to meet other Native Americans. That may be true; it must also have had the effect of catching the attention of hiring committees at prestigious law schools.
Once at Harvard, Warren quickly developed a reputation as an engaging and committed teacher. Students of all political stripes flocked to her classes. I was one of them. She was, I can attest, an excellent professor.
It is not difficult to imagine that the members of the hiring committee might have thought Warren would help with their public relations problem—or at least buy them some time.
The Boston Globe reports that Warren’s claim to Native American heritage never came up in faculty deliberations. But, of course, it didn’t have to. At that point, her purported ethnicity was a matter of record.
It is unusual for Harvard to make offers of tenure to professors who attended and began their academic careers at Rutgers. To be sure, Warren had worked her way up to a tenured position at Penn, another Ivy League school. And there is no question that she was a much-loved teacher. But in that highly-charged political climate, being Native American could only have helped.
One thing is certain: Once Warren joined the faculty, Harvard touted her minority status in order to burnish its diversity credentials, listing Warren as a minority in internal documents and compliance reports and telling the Harvard Crimson that the law school had a Native American female on the faculty.
The story of Elizabeth Warren’s ascent to Harvard raises legitimate questions about whether it was ethical for her to hold herself out as a minority to employers—for her own benefit or for theirs. It also raises important policy questions about racial preferences and affirmative action in the 21st century—and about Sen. Warren’s views on those issues.
Does Warren favor the use of racial preferences in university hiring and college admissions? Does she believe that race and ethnicity should be considered a plus-factor, or a thumb-on-the scale?
If so, which applicants “count” as racial or ethnic minorities? Does anyone with a smidgen of minority heritage count? Or do only those people with a parent or grandparent from the protected class count? At what percentages do we institute cut-offs?
When measuring “diversity,” should schools count Asian Americans? Native Americans? Latinos? Or should they concern themselves only with blacks, because of their unique history as part of America’s slave-owning past?
Should one be officially registered with a tribe to count as Native American? Who counts as Latino? Only Mexicans and Central Americans? What about South Americans? Or Cubans? Or Puerto Ricans? Do the grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants count? Or only the first generation?
Why are we doing this bean-counting at all?
These questions are not theoretical. They impact university hiring and admission decisions every day. In fact, the same day that Warren claimed victory in the dispute over her heritage, Harvard University was in federal court in Boston, defending its race-conscious admissions policy against claims that it discriminates against Asian Americans.
And that is why Sen. Warren’s heritage is not simply a personal matter. It’s a matter of public concern.