Self-Identification Theater

This just in. Simply put, we have a tortured relationship with race in the US, a relationship our leaders just don’t seem to be able to rise above; indeed they continually make it worse. The case of Elizabeth Warren is case in point.

The Washington Post does a nice job of explaining how we got “here” in the Warren controversy, such that I don’t need to revisit it here in full. Scott Brown seized on Harvard University touting her minority status and demanding she apologize; she said she didn’t see fit to apologize for her family heritage.  And so it goes: we all know how candidate and now President Trump has handled it.

This week the now Senator Warren released the results of a DNA test she took that suggests (some say “prove,” but in my opinion any time you have to have a human analyze the data and give a projection it only suggests) distant Native American heritage. Some 6 to 10 generations in the past.  She has turned this into an argument for the idea that Trump likes to say her mother lied about her heritage.

The thing is, that’s too simplistic, and really does violence to the real issues here.

First, she really did lie on her EEO form. She didn’t release that document, but SHRM has a sample here. Employers of a certain size are required to report statistics to the Federal government, but aren’t allowed to require self-identification; it has to be voluntary and if it’s not supplied by the employee, the employer is required to assign an identification based on visual evidence. I haven’t heard anyone accuse Harvard to assigning a race to professor Warren, so it remains undisputed she self-identified.

“The employer is subject to certain governmental recordkeeping and reporting requirements for the administration of civil rights laws and regulations. In order to comply with these laws, the employer invites employees to voluntarily self-identify their race or ethnicity. Submission of this information is voluntary and refusal to provide it will not subject you to any adverse treatment. The information obtained will be kept confidential and may only be used in accordance with the provisions of applicable laws, executive orders, and regulations, including those that require the information to be summarized and reported to the federal government for civil rights enforcement. When reported, data will not identify any specific individual.”

EEOC

What she did release however, to her credit, is personnel information across her academic career – rather transparent, but I surmise that’s to make a rhetorical argument that the President should release his tax returns. She didn’t release information from her appointment immediately preceding Harvard, but she did for the University of Texas, here and here. As of June, 1988, she was self-identifying as “white.” As of December 1995,  she had been self-identifying for 4-years (so, 1991) as “Native American.”

Here’s what I consider a pretty fair explanation of what “self identification” means in a racial context: “Racial identification occurs when individuals consider themselves to be a part of an imagined conglomerate of people who are presumed to share certain physical, cultural, intellectual, and moral traits. This identification can be made for cultural, social, legal, or political purposes, and it involves both self-identification and categorization. Self-identification is the choice individuals make when confronted with racial choices.” I like this because the reference does a nice job with explaining the nuance of race.   Why do I not provide a definition of what the EEOC considers “identification with a racial group?” I can’t find one. To the best of my knowledge, there is no official definition as to what it means to “identify” as a member of a racial group.

So it would seem there is not objective means by which one can “identify” as a member of a particular race.  It would seem that there’s not even good data on the percentage of white Americans with Native ancestry.  This makes sense, really. Geographic differences would account for a lot of that: there is no “average” for reasons highlighted in my link describing self-identification. there’s no discrete “White” race.  The Washington Post reports that the Republican National Committee suggests that Warren’s recent DNA test suggests only that she may be quite average in terms of Native ancestry – but I submit that may depend on the group she’s being compared against.  Regardless, “the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual’s pedigree, likely in the range of 6-10 generations ago.”

“To put that in perspective, Warren might even be less Native American than the average European American,” the RNC said, pointing to a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics that found that “European-Americans had genomes that were on average 98.6 percent European, .19 percent African, and .18 Native American.”

She’s trying to make the case that family lore said she has ancestors, something backed up apparently by the DNA results. But that doesn’t explain why if this had been family lore, that she decided somewhere in her 30’s to decide to identify as “native American.” Perhaps her time in Austin influenced it, perhaps there are other reasons.  Regardless, I submit having one ancestor in the range of 6-10 generations ago probably doesn’t qualify as a basis for “identifying” as a particular race. This is the question that hasn’t been answered, and it’s really the only one that matters here. Did she lie to get ahead at Harvard? Who knows, there must be *some* reason, but it seems to me that this is not even a conversation worth having.

Her response to the controversy starting with Scott Brown has been incredible, meaning lacking in credibility. She’s helped perpetuate it by giving us this family lore story. Brown should never have entered into the debate – everything here has been in the context of private employment, as “self identifying” (a term without a real definition). The issue has been, and continues to be, an attack on EEO.  Elizabeth Warren has allowed herself to be a pawn here, which allows the GOP to continue to use race as a wedge issue. She’s shown herself to be really just a politician and no better than Trump.

By getting the DNA test, she’s responded to Trump by being Trumpy. She’s playing his game. Demanding he donate the $1-Million he wagered against her “being an indian” to  National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. She’s playing the same offensive racial game of dividing a conquering, perhaps cloaked a little better, but certainly no different. She’s responding to a non-issue she helped exacerbate, by creating another issue.  This is all theater. And none of it is helpful.

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Nobody Builds Walls Better Than Me

In April 1945, Harry Truman became the 33rd President of the United States by virtue of the death of Franklin Roosevelt.  He had been Vice President for all of 82-Days.

He had been on the ballot for Vice President through the apparent willingness of Roosevelt to allow others’ back room wrangling and cloak and dagger maneuverings at the Democratic National Convention.  This was a man who had been barely re-elected Senator amid concerns with his connections to “machine politics” back in Missouri.  Yet, the sitting Vice-President had been cast aside in favor of the Senator from Missouri.   He had no enemies, and could probably be manipulated.

In the time he was Vice-President, he had met with FDR exactly twice.  He had to be told of the existence of the atomic bomb after having become President, and even then only several weeks.  He had never been briefed on FDR’s and Churchill’s conference with Stalin at Yalta.

He was seen as an inexperienced “every man,” ill-prepared and perhaps ill-equipped to rise to the Presidency.  The American public voted for Roosevelt despite this fact, never apparently realizing just how poor his health actually was, and without understanding it was Truman for whom they were actually casting their ballot.

4-months after ascending to the Presidency, on August 6, 1945, the first of two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

72-years later, the American voting public elected Donald Trump President of the United States.  By contrast, the Republican Party not only didn’t try to engineer his election, but actively worked against it.  This is a man displaying little of the temperament nor comport one may expect of the leader of the free world; if Truman were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to be President, after having been a judge, county commissioner, Congressman, and Senator, it can easily be argued Trump is ill-equipped to be a judge, county commissioner, Congressman, or Senator.

And yet, Truman – despite some fits and starts – demonstrated a resolve and force of character that allowed him to will himself to acquit himself well.  His was a history of hard work, faithful service to both his constituents and family, and fully determined to succeed.  He had failed businesses behind him, but the point was he always saw to it to comport himself properly.  He was straight to the point, did what he believed correct, and expected those around him to be as well. He treated those around him with respect, and was humble.

America was lucky.  An accidental President happened to become what the country needed at the time he was needed.  In 2016, America chose perhaps another accidental President, fitting none of the qualities which could be said of Harry S Truman.  No one around Trump considers him to be humble, a student concerned with details, or frankly as someone possessing force of character or resolve.  Despite the perception he speaks plainly and speaks his mind, I’ve found his pronouncements opaque and not only contradictory of his previous statements, but sometimes internally contradictory.

Despite Truman’s past using derogatory racial and religious terms, he behaved in ways that projected respect – perhaps not by modern standards, but certainly by standards of the day.  I don’t find the same to be true of Trump. Believe me, this isn’t to dismiss Truman’s use of the expressions; it is to say that he could perhaps have made for a greater President had he not harbored those beliefs, but he did keep those beliefs private. There was no TMZ, no Facebook Live, no Twitter.  These beliefs were uncovered only in his secret diary, not on a 10-year old, previously unreleased video. The world probably didn’t know that he called New York a “kike town” quite the same way we knew how Trump saw himself the ladies man.  We didn’t know what we were getting in 1944; we did in 2016.

We voted for this man knowing full well what monstrous weapons the US military has at its disposal, and while the Libertarian candidate was mocked for his apparent ignorance of the tragedy of Aleppo, Syria, we voted for a man who has demonstrated little understanding of world affairs, suggesting that the US should have just taken Iraq’s oil.

Where Truman put careful consideration into his actions, where he wanted to avoid conflict with others, we have Trump who apparently chooses to rule through “controlled chaos.” Trumps plan is to set up situations where personalities duke it out, which presumably will determine the winning ideology.

David McCullough’s biography of Truman demonstrates what decisions a President makes and what role those decisions play in the world.  The American public had no idea what power they were giving Harry S Truman on the day they cast their ballots for Franklin Delano Roosevelt back in 1944.  With one telegram, Truman authorized the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Japan – a weapon so mindbogglingly devastating, the world had no way to truly comprehend what had just happened.  On November 8, 2016, we willingly gave Donald John Trump that authority, knowing just how awesome that responsibility is.

My hope for Donald Trump, for the United States, and for the world, is that somehow he figures out how to be the thoughtful leader Harry Truman came to be.  My hope is that Trump comes to understand just how awesome his responsibility is, just how powerful his words as President are, and to not wield that awesomeness recklessly.  To this point, we’ve become a society where it’s actually okay for Neil Cavuto to gloat that his networks’ brand of news is now favored, as though there is a “right” editorial slant.  We’re less than three days into the Trump era and I think less “Harry Truman” and more ” Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.” Maybe if we demand more, we’ll get more, but I’m more convinced than ever that we just don’t care enough to demand more.  We’ve given up the idea of a leader who really is an “every man,” for that of a Billionaire who appeals to our base instincts and presents as an “every man.”

When Vice-President Truman was led to the White House residence, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who had informed him of FDR’s passing.  When Truman had asked if there was anything he could do for her, she asked him the same question, adding, “For you are the one in trouble now.” President Trump, you have a great weight to overcome: that of history.  You are the one in trouble now.