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.”
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.