Blond, blue-eyed Elizabeth Warren, the Senate candidate and Harvard professor who cites “family lore” that she is 1/32nd Cherokee, was inducted into Oklahoma’s Hall of Fame last year. Her biography on oklahomaheritage.com says she “can track both sides of her family in Oklahoma long before statehood” (1907) and “she proudly tells everyone she encounters that she is ‘an Okie to my toes.'” It does not mention any Cherokee great-great-great-grandmother. A DVD of the induction ceremony shows that neither Warren nor anyone else mentioned this.
The kerfuffle that has earned Warren such sobriquets as “Spouting Bull” and “Fauxcahontas” began with reports that Harvard Law School, in routine academic preening about diversity (in everything but thought), listed her as a minority faculty member, as did the University of Pennsylvania when she taught there.
She said some in her family had “high cheekbones like all of the Indians do.” The New England Historic Genealogical Society said a document confirmed the family lore of Warren’s Cherokee ancestry, but later backtracked. She has said she did not know Harvard was listing her as a minority in the 1990s, but Harvard was echoing her: From 1986 through 1995, starting before she came to Harvard, a directory published by the Association of American Law Schools listed her as a minority and says its listings are based on professors claiming minority status.
So, although no evidence has been found that Warren is part Indian, for years two universities listed her as such. She has identified herself as a minority, as when, signing her name as “Elizabeth Warren — Cherokee,” she submitted a crab recipe (Oklahoma crabs?) to a supposedly Indian cookbook. This is a political problem.
A poll taken before this controversy found her Republican opponent Scott Brown trouncing her on “likability,” 57 percent to 23 percent. Even Democrats broke for Brown 40-38. Now she is a comic figure associated with laughable racial preferences. She who wants Wall Street “held accountable” is accountable for two elite law schools advertising her minority status. She who accuses Wall Street of gaming the financial system at least collaborated with, and perhaps benefited from, the often absurd obsession with “diversity.”
How absurd? Warren says that for almost a decade she listed herself in the AALS directory as a Native American because she hoped to “meet others like me.” This well-educated, highly paid, much-honored (she was a consumer protection adviser to President Obama) member of America’s upper 1 percent went looking for people “who are like I am” among Native Americans?
This makes perfect sense to a liberal subscriber to the central superstition of the diversity industry, which is the premise of identity politics: Personhood is distilled not to the content of character but only to race, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference.
This controversy has discombobulated liberalism’s crusade to restore Democratic possession of the Senate seat the party won in 1952 with John Kennedy and held until 2010, when Brown captured it after Ted Kennedy’s death. Lofty thinkers and exasperated liberals consider the focus on Warren’s fanciful ancestry a distraction from serious stuff. (Such as The Washington Post’s nearly 5,500-word wallow in teenage Mitt Romney’s prep school comportment?) But Warren’s adult dabbling in identity politics is pertinent because it is, in all its silliness, applied liberalism.
The New York Times Magazine’s headline on its profile of her — “Heaven Is a Place Called Elizabeth Warren” — suggests the chord she strikes with liberals. They resonate to identity politics of the sort Warren’s campaign tried when, on the defensive, it resorted, of course, to claiming victimhood. Playing the gender card, it insinuated that criticism of her adventures as a minority amounts to a sexist attack on an accomplished woman. But an accomplished woman, Susan Collins of Maine, the only Republican senator rated more liberal than Brown (who last year voted with his party only 54 percent of the time on partisan issues), called this insinuation “patently absurd.”
Barack Obama, who in 2008 carried Massachusetts by almost 800,000 votes, will win here again, and a senior official of Brown’s campaign thinks that in order to win, Brown must run between 250,000 and 500,000 votes ahead of Romney. In the special election in January 2010, Brown defeated a female opponent (women are 53 percent of Massachusetts voters) by 107,317 votes. He won independents 2-1.
The turnout this November, with Obama on the ballot, probably will be larger, less white and more Democratic. But just 0.3 percent of Massachusetts residents are Native Americans, even counting Warren.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. He may be contacted at email@example.com.