Do Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee Roots Matter?

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WARREN HOUSE OVERSIGHTPhoto: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Elizabeth Warren is 1/32nd Cherokee (just like the current president of the Cherokee Nation). This is not technically news. Harvard touted then-law-professor Warren's minority status in the nineties, when the university was under fire for a lack of faculty diversity — in 1998, for instance, the Crimson reported that she was the first minority woman on the law faculty to be tenured. Yet Warren hasn't exactly played up those roots recently, and last Friday, the Boston Herald made waves with the story that she had once claimed minority status.

Massachusetts Republicans quickly seized on the information as a weapon in the tight race for senator between Warren and Scott Brown.  The revelation reopens a culture-war flashpoint from that era: Did Warren game the affirmative action system to her advantage? As her critics have it, listing herself as a minority might have moved Warren's job applications into a different bucket, during an era in which elite institutions, including the one where she ended up, were demonstrably eager to shield themselves from the charge that they were not diverse enough.

Warren listed herself as a minority in legal directories as early as 1986, when a separate appendix of minority professors was first published, and as late as 1996, after she'd moved from the University of Pennsylvania to Harvard. She has said she did this in order to find "other people like me."  ("That’s evidently not a particularly good use for the directory because it never happened," Warren added.) But when she taught at the University of Texas from 1981 to 1987, she listed her ethnicity as white on official university records (her employee file at Harvard has not been released).  Just after she was hired by Harvard in 1995, Warren dropped her minority listing in the AALS Directory of Faculty, even as the University was touting it publicly. “Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American,” read a 1996 Crimson article, timing that provides grist for those who want to imply that identifying as Cherokee was a careerist move that helped her get inside the most rarified Ivy gates.

Cultural identity is a slippery thing, and there's no evidence that listing herself as Cherokee helped Warren. As Mother Jones points out, she grew up in Oklahoma and thus might have felt more connected to those Cherokee roots than the average person who's 1/32nd American Indian. And the connection may have seemed more important at different times in her life, depending on geography.  At the time she listed herself as Native American, documentation was not required to do so, although law schools do now require it.

Neverthless, the problem for the Warren campaign isn't that she once identified as American Indian — although conservative commentators have seized upon the opportunity to make boneheaded jokes, as when Mike Murphy dubbed Warren "Chief"and said she faces "slings and, um, arrows." It's that she has apparently officially claimed that heritage selectively. The inconsistency leaves plenty of room for the Scott Brown campaign to suggest that Warren, who has built a career and a following on being a straight-talking straight shooter, isn't always forthcoming. Call it the truthiness factor.

It also, more crucially, allows the Brown campaign to subtly undermine Warren's incredibly impressive, previously unimpeachable track record of accomplishment. Brown can't suggest that, say, Warren was ushered into certain exclusive doors because she was a woman; there would be instant, widespread uproar about sexism. (For the record, no one involved in Warren's Harvard hiring process recalls her heritage ever even being on the table; it "emerged" later.)

But there is still simmering resentment towards what some perceive as a version of loophole exploitation — the idea that a woman who probably hadn't experienced discrimination related to her heritage might nevertheless benefit from policies meant to be correctives to such.  Consider this surprising screed about Warren from the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach, who pats himself on the back for never taking advantage of his own murky Native American ancestry.

Especially in Massachusetts, where plenty of Democrats who might swing to the GOP are working- or middle-class white men, Brown probably doesn't have to do much to mine any latent resentment on that front. He just needs, as he's been doing, to pass the buck to Warren — "If there are questions, you know, she should answer them" —  without explicitly condemning her.