, Newburyport, MA

May 9, 2012

Elizabeth Warren and the Cherokee dilemma

The question for Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is not whether she truly is part Native American. A genealogist has confirmed that the Massachusetts Democrat is 1/32nd Cherokee, although no document yet has been produced proving the connection.

That would not be an uncommon finding for many who were, as Warren was, born and raised in Oklahoma. The state was once known as the Indian Territory and was where the Cherokee people were relocated after being driven from their homeland in the Southeast.

The questions the U.S. Senate hopeful needs to address are whether she ever benefitted in her career from her self-identification as a minority and whether she believes that others less fortunate than she may have been denied an opportunity because of it.

Were Warren's Native American ancestry more prevalent — say a parent or grandparent — certainly a case could be made that she could arguably claim a direct connection and living knowledge of Native American minority status. But by all accounts, Warren's Native American ancestry is five generations removed — a great-great-great grandmother — and she grew up in a white, working-class family in Oklahoma City.

It seems clear that Warren's "box-checking" on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefitted by citing Warren as a minority faculty member at a time its diversity practices were under fire.

Warren's claim that she checked the box claiming Native American heritage in her application for inclusion in the Association of American Law Schools desk book so that she could meet people with similar backgrounds is laughable. So too are her assertions that her Native American claims are justified because of "family lore" and relatives with "high cheekbones."

While "box checking" is not illegal, there are some who believe it should be.

Jim Peters, the executive director of the state Commission on Indian Affairs and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, said it should be illegal to use such connections to gain an employment advantage.

"There should be a law against it," he said. "People have a right to embrace the fact they have Native American in their ancestry. If they have a connection, we don't hold it against them."

But, he added, "It depends on what you want to do with it."

And the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color also objects to box checking. The organization passed a "Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud" last July. The resolution, signed by the presidents of the Hispanic, Asian, Native American and National bar associations, states that "fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants."

Warren's professional accomplishments have been impressive. Up until this issue arose, she has been convincingly portrayed as a person who achieved success through hard work and intelligence. The portrayal is now murky.

If Warren wants to resolve this controversy, she should authorize the law schools she has attended and taught at to release her applications and any other relevant admissions or hiring documents. Let's she how many times she claimed minority status as a Native American and whether that made a difference to the schools.

And we ought to consider what truly constitutes "minority status." If people like Elizabeth Warren are getting a hand up from "box checking," who is being left behind in their place?