Opinion: Elizabeth Warren and the Problem with Racial Self-Identification

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - 11:44 AM

Elizabeth Warren (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images/Getty)

Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts -and recent head of the federal consumer protection agency - is in the middle of a nasty controversy that underscores the nefarious nature of racial politics in this country.

For years, she referred to herself as 1/32nd Cherokee - listing herself in the Association of American Law Schools directory as Native American and when submitting an 'Indian' recipe. This ended up in professor bio at Harvard University. Warren has dismissed all of this and is saying she doesn’t know how she came to be listed as such at Harvard but the story has media “legs.” Incumbent Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, has been making hay of this issue and it very likely will secure his reelection.

At universities throughout the country, there is a continuous push for departments and programs to hire minority and women candidates. They are the door that opens up federal funding and accolades for diversity and being good, enlightened, and kind to minorities. Candidates themselves also have a huge incentive to put down a minority status in order to get preferential scholarship money or admissions as students (ethnicity or race is still at least one of the criteria that gets you points) as well as job offers, promotions, and often-even tenure.

One of the problems with the Native American (or American Indian - as the group actually prefers to be called) designation, is that along with Hispanics, these individuals are often less visibly non-white than some other racial minorities. 

Compounding this is the problem that there does not seem to be any way to verify the racial or ethnic status of individuals. Self-identification and trust in the accuracy of that is the principal way to determine this unless a person is enrolled in an American Indian community and actually ”has papers.”

For Hispanics place of birth, surname, or where a person grew up may be indicators, since Hispanidad is more cultural than anything else. The same is true of sexual identity since it is hard to “prove” that someone is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. 

A colleague shared a story a few years ago that at her university on the West Coast they were hiring someone to teach and do research on African American and ethnic politics. The pressure was intense to hire a black candidate, and after careful screening (they were not, of course allowed to see pictures or even have candidates indicate their race) they invited three for interviews.

When they went to the airport to pick up the second candidate a frantic call came in to the search committee from the person sent to get the candidate "He's not black! What should I do?!" Needless to say candidate number two - although he possesed an impeccable CV, had published, gotten prestige grants, and had an excellent teaching background - did not pass the race test!

While I’m certain that voters in the Bay State care more about the economy and jobs that’s how it rolls in politics. Elizabeth Warren is a great example of how things can go terribly wrong when we play racial and ethnic politics and then try to run for office. 


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Comments [3]


This article is not very well researched. Steffen says, "For years, she referred to herself as 1/32nd Cherokee". This is not true. She referred to herself simply as "Native American" but never researched it, instead relying on "family lore". Only AFTER this story blew up did anyone go back to actually try and make a connection to Indian ancestry and that is when it was incorrectly stated that her great great great grandmother was Cherokee.

May. 31 2012 04:12 AM

"One of the problems with the Native American (or American Indian - as the group actually prefers to be called) designation"

"the group" is not at all an accurate way to describe an ethnicity and the National Council of American Indians is one advocacy group and certainly does not speak for all Native Americans.

I really don't think the author is qualified to write about this topic.

May. 30 2012 10:31 PM
Jane Southam from Menlo Park CA

The Boston Herald reports today that she also claims that she is "the first nursing mother ever to take the Bar exam in New Jersey." Considering that women have been taking the Bar in New Jersey since 1895, that would seem false.

Also, the New Jersey Bar does not keep stats on this issue. Warren should be ashamed of herself for making such a wild claim.

May. 30 2012 02:48 PM

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