Politics is an interesting game, but sometimes the rules are hard to figure out. One of the most challenging puzzles involves racism.
The dictionary definition of racism is “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.”
Another simpler meaning of racism is “racial prejudice or discrimination.”
Americans are taught that racism is a very bad thing indeed. The equal rights movement of the 1950s onward has lobbied for fair rules in society, whether it’s a matter of which drinking fountain you use or which seat on the bus you choose.
In the employment arena, the U.S. established the <https://www.eeoc.gov/> Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)</a> under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect employees from discrimination of all kinds, including the color of one’s skin or racial ancestry. Protected are large groups of minority populations, including women, people with disabilities, and ethnic groups (African Americans and Asian Americans, for example).
One ethnic group that is getting national attention, thanks to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is that of Native Americans. At the root of the matter is the fact that, according to her <https://www.who2.com/bio/elizabeth-warren/> biography</a>, she “says that her family lore indicates that she has some distant Native American ancestors” and “she once listed herself as a minority in the directory of the Association of American Law Schools.”
A review undertaken by the Boston Globe in 2018 discovered that Warren never claimed minority status for any of her law school jobs. (She was a professor at Harvard Law School and a leading consumer advocate before her 2012 election to the Senate.)
Perhaps the Boston Globe staff were confused because <https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1996/10/22/survey-diversity-lacking-at-hls-pa/> Mike Chmura</a> was quoted in the October 22, 1996 issue of the Harvard Crimson as countering “the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women” by stating that “Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.” How did Chmura get that idea?
Could it be due to the fact — reported in 2012 by the Boston Globe — “from 1986 to 1995 Warren had listed herself as a racial minority in the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Directory of Law Teachers” and Harvard Law School acknowledged Warren as a “woman of color” to prove faculty diversity?
Warren has been using her claim of Native American ancestry to ally with this historically persecuted and downtrodden collective of tribes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with helping oppressed minorities. What is questionable is claiming to part of an ethnic group in order to garner sympathy and empathy from them and others outside the minority group.
That is what Warren appears to be doing. In the 1980s she “formally notified law school administrators that her family tree includes Native Americans” and said she “grew up with family stories about both grandparents on her mother’s side having some Cherokee or Delaware blood.” Warren also “called herself Cherokee in a local Oklahoma cookbook in 1984.”
Because of Warren’s questionable protected-minority racial claims, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, Donald Trump started to call Warren, as a derisive joke, Pocahontas – a reference to the daughter of Chief Powhatan who saved the life of Britisher John Smith of the Jamestown, Virginia colony.
On July 5, 2018, at a political rally in Montana, President Trump said that if he ever faced Warren in a debate (e.g., if she won the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination), he would pay $1 million to any charity of her choice if she could produce a positive DNA test to prove her nativeness:
“Let’s say I’m debating Pocahontas. I promise you I’ll do this: I will take, you know those little kits they sell on television…’learn your heritage!’ And in the middle of the debate, when she proclaims that she’s of Indian heritage, because her mother said she has high cheekbones — that’s her only evidence, that her mother said she had high cheekbones — we will…very gently take that kit and we will slowly toss it, hoping it doesn’t hit her and injure her arm – even though it only ways two ounces – and we will say ‘I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”
Warren answered Trump’s challenging taunt by getting a DNA blood test to prove just how Native American she is. The results were published October 10 by Professor Carlos D. Bustamante, Ph.D.:
Warren is 95 percent European (white Caucasian) and has “5 genetic segments” identified as “Native American in origin” which indicate the presence of an ancestor “approximately 8 generations before the sample, although the actual number could be somewhat lower or higher.”
So, strictly speaking, Warren’s family stories of Native American ancestry may be completely true. But genetics is part of being part of a tribe, according to actual Native Americans, notably the Cherokee Nation.
On October 15, Chuck Hoskin, Jr., Secretary of State for the Cherokee Nation, made a very strong statement about what constitutes tribal affiliation – and Warren doesn’t make the cut:
“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America. Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”
That same day, Warren tweeted her acknowledgment that she knows she has no tribal affiliation:
“I won’t sit quietly for [Trump’s] racism, so I took a test. But DNA & family history has nothing to do with tribal affiliation or citizenship, which is determined only – only – by Tribal Nations. I respect the distinction, & don’t list myself as Native in the Senate.”
Incredibly, Warren has asked Trump to pay up. She tweeted instructions for the President to “send a check to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which supports Native American victims of sexual violence.”
One Native woman, Rebecca Nagle distanced herself from Sen. Warren, saying: “as Native people, we are relegated to being invisible, while Warren is not.” Nagle explained why she doesn’t consider Warren a Cherokee advocate:
“She was not a hero to me when she failed to foster a haven of support for Native students within Harvard University’s alienating Ivy League culture. She is not a hero for spending years awkwardly avoiding Native leaders. She is not a hero because, despite claiming to be the only Native woman in the U.S. Senate, she has done nothing to advance our rights. She is not from us. She does not represent us. She is not Cherokee.”
Despite all of this hullaballoo over how Native American Sen. Warren is (or isn’t), in an October 10 tweet from Sen. Warren demonstrated her support for Natives:
“The Supreme Court has allowed a North Dakota voter ID requirement that could disenfranchise thousands of Native Americans. This unjust decision highlights why we must pass @SenatorTomUdall’s Native American Voting Rights Act.”
About the only person behind Sen. Warren is Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democratic House candidate. Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe and may become the first Native American Congresswoman. She tweeted on October 15:
“Senator Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test confirms the family history she has long shared with the world, and I acknowledge her Native ancestry as testament to who we are as Americans. Senator Warren has been a sister in the struggle for years for Indigenous peoples’ rights, and for all of us who weren’t born into the top 1%. The revelation of Senator Warren’s Native American ancestry is significant for her personally, and I join her in celebrating her ancestry.”
All of this leads us back to our original puzzle regarding racism. When a politician uses race as a plank in their election platform, isn’t that racist? Is it racist to say that Barack Obama was the first Black American U.S. president?
Is it racist to claim membership in an oppressed minority in order to gain sectarian – and public – sympathy? For that matter, are EEOC laws racist, even though their intention is noble: to give minority members a hand up, rather than a hand-out?
Did Warren play the race card right and is that why President Trump called her on it? Are we being racist merely talking about it?
As we said up front, politics is a great game but sometimes the rules are hard to understand.