Elizabeth Warren’s Native American Ancestry Was Never Really the Point

US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens during a town hall meeting in Roxbury, Massachusetts, October 13, 2018.
A miscalculation. Photo: Jospeh Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren finally did it. Caving to years of pressure from President Donald Trump, the Massachusetts senator tried to shore up her claims to Native American ancestry by taking a DNA test. The results appear in a documentary on her website and inform a lengthy subsection on the topic.

“The facts suggest that you absolutely have a Native American ancestor in your pedigree,” Carlos Bustamante, a professor of genetics at Stanford University and adviser to Ancestry.com and 23andMe, tells Warren in the video, which was released Monday.

It seems unlikely that many will be moved by these findings. Native ancestry is notoriously hard to quantify through DNA testing. The analysis places Warren’s indigenous ancestor six to ten generations back, meaning she could be as little as 1/1,024th Native, according to the Boston Globe. This may vindicate her in the most literal sense, but it also wades into messy debates about how Native identity is calculated. White people claim Cherokee ancestry so often it borders on self-parody. Warren distinguishes between ethnic heritage and tribal membership in her video, but the distinction’s very existence is ironic — in part because requirements to prove tribal ancestry were originally imposed by the U.S. government, not the tribes themselves. The Cherokee Nation itself rebuked Warren’s DNA test. And such compartmentalization can be twisted to nefarious ends, like tribal disenrollment and, most recently, the invalidation of the Indian Child Welfare Act in Texas.

But the Warren-Trump debacle isn’t really about any of that. Conservative jabs at Warren’s Native heritage are about as serious as Trump calling her “Pocahontas” in front of jeering crowds. Derision and delegitimization are the real point. And Warren is playing Trump’s game — if only because a volatile electorate has forced her hand.

That Team Warren thinks this issue is a political vulnerability at all speaks volumes. The likely root of her decision to take Trump’s jabs seriously is fear that being linked to perceived race-based advantages — and ones obtained by lying, at that — could harm a 2020 presidential bid. In addition to the DNA results, Warren’s video features admissions committee members and professors from past law schools affirming that her claims to Native ancestry played no role in their decision to admit or hire her.

“To try to belittle [Warren’s qualifications] with this nonsense is very unfair,” says Olin G. Wellborn, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, where Warren used to teach.

The senator’s attempts to prove her Native heritage while going out of her way to demonstrate her hiring did not rely on it has a perhaps-unintended implication: that being qualified and having ethnicity factor in school admissions or professional advancement are mutually exclusive. This concedes the right’s main argument against affirmative action: that it gives underqualified minorities an unearned leg up. And the truth is, Warren has good reason to worry about this perception. Public opinion polling on the subject varies so widely as to be inconclusive. Some polls show overwhelming support for affirmative action in college admissions. Others show that support plummets when the question is reframed in terms of whether “racial and ethnic background should be considered.” Most self-identified Republicans are against it anyway.

This tension makes sense considering how receptive much of white America is to racial grievance politics. Trump owes his political career to it. His 2011 “birther” campaign against President Barack Obama proved so galvanizing on the right — and faced so little opposition from the Republican establishment — that Obama decided it was wisest to release his birth certificate to prove he wasn’t born in Kenya. Such conspiracy theories are a fixture of the conservative playbook. It’s why Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of mass-scale voter fraud in 2016 provoked not ridicule from his supporters, but insistence they’d seen it occur with their own eyes — even if they retracted such claims when pressed.

“I guess I can’t cite the busloads that I’ve seen, [or] where I’ve seen them,” a Trump supporter named Bill told CNN, minutes after claiming he’d watched busloads of illegal voters enter New Hampshire from Massachusetts.

In the end, these efforts are intended to mock and delegitimize progressive opposition, not challenge it in good faith. They are rooted in lies, but exploit enough real cultural fault-lines that failing to treat them seriously risks losing ground to their proponents politically. Such is the self-replicating power of whiteness, and to a similar extent, maleness. Everyone else’s claims to belonging are always subject to interrogation. “The real function of racism is distraction,” author Toni Morrison said in 1975. “It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” But there will always be something else to prove. Vindicating though it may seem on some level, Warren indulging her Republican baiters seems unlikely to yield more than a sense of moral satisfaction. Among conservatives, the goading was always insincere — as empty as the coffers of the charity to which Trump promised $1 million if Warren proved her Native blood.

Elizabeth Warren’s Native Ancestry Was Never the Point