Elizabeth Warren and the Poison of Identity Politics

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Seven months ago, I considered Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren from a libertarian perspective. The establishment media darling and Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts didn’t offer much to like.

Since then, she’s become considerably more entertaining. And thought-provoking, though not in a way she would have intended.

During the past few weeks, Warren has been caught in a moronic controversy that has put her campaign on the defensive, led supporters to question her political savvy, and — perhaps most damaging — confirmed the impression that she’s a charlatan. The gist of it: for about 15 years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Warren listed herself in various academic professional directories as a member of a racial minority. Specifically, an American Indian.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Reporters from the Boston Herald asked Warren about her claims of minority status: why she’d made them, then stopped making them, and whether she’d “played the race card” when applying for teaching positions at posh law schools such as Penn and Harvard.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Then, faced with hard evidence from several directories (including the Association of American Law Schools’ annual directory of minority law teachers), she “clarified” her answer. What she’d meant to say was that she’d never made the claims while applying for teaching jobs.

But there were more rakes in the yard . . . and Warren promptly stepped on them. When reporters asked her to explain in detail her claim of Native American ancestry, she babbled:

My Aunt Bee . . . remarked that he — that her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do! Because that’s how she saw it. And she said, “And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.” She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. . . . I was listed [in the minority directories] because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up. And it turned out that’s — there really wasn’t any of that.

Note the passive voice of “I was listed.” By all accounts, she did the listing. Her nervous rhetoric betrayed her effort to shirk responsibility for the mendacious act of including herself among minority professors. And some pundits focused on the lazy, verging on racist, generalizations behind the dizzy professor’s words: “high cheekbones” are something “all of the Indians” have.

Not exactly Prof. Kingsfield.

Warren’s campaign rushed into damage control mode. Smoother spokespeople explained that, on a marriage license application in 1894, Warren’s great-uncle claimed that his grandmother — a woman named Neoma O.C. Sarah Smith — had been a Cherokee. The campaign then produced a Utah-based genealogist who confirmed that Neoma, Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother, was at least half Cherokee. (According to some, the initials “O.C.” meant native Cherokee; according to others, contemporary documents described Neoma as “white” which, by the practice of the time, could mean she was half Indian.)

If Neoma was a full-blooded Cherokee, Warren is 1/32; if she was half Cherokee, the professor is 1/64. A thin reed, but the campaign was determined to hang Warren’s robes on it. Staffers pointed out that Bill John Baker, the current chief of the Cherokee nation, has a similarly slight blood connection to the tribe.

Really, this is madness.

When I was in college, we read Mark Twain’s satiric short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, which rightly ridicules racial distinctions based on 1/8, 1/32, or 1/64 ancestry. The story is often dismissed as an angry product of Twain’s bitter late period — and it is angry. But it’s also a strong perspective on the games that identity-politics practitioners such as Warren play. And have been playing for more than 100 years.

Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma.

Warren’s handlers can spin the story — but the damage is done. On the Internet, ever merciless, the dismissive nicknames have started: Pinocchio-hontas, Fauxcahontas, Sacajawhiner. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson: in some cases, the substance of a charge isn’t important; the response — however skillful — is damaging in itself.

(Actually, what LBJ said was: “I don’t care if the story [that his opponent had sex with farm animals] is true. I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.”)

A few days after Warren’s campaign came up with the marriage license application, the story took an ironic turn. While Neoma’s provenance remains murky, her husband — a man named Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokees died on that “Trail of Tears.” So, even if she’s part Indian, Warren is also descended from an oppressor in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history.

Here we reach the logical end of racial identity politics — a muddle of conflicting conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory government documents. Statist bureaucrats love categorizing people; but their categories are usually false, so they don’t hold up over time.

And a mediocrity like Elizabeth Warren ends up being vilified by partisans both Left and Right.

The Boston Herald’s populist grievance merchant Howie Carr put Warren’s miscues in the disgruntled right-wing frame:

The problem the elites have understanding the power of this story is simple. They’ve never been passed over for a job they were qualified for because of some allegedly disadvantaged person who wasn’t. . . . [T]he upper classes have no comprehension of the “rottenness” of this system. . . . [S]omeone in the Harvard counseling office might sadly inform a young Trustafarian that he might have a problem getting into the law school. But then Someone who knows Someone picks up the phone and young Throckmorton suddenly bumps a kid from Quincy with higher LSATs . . .

In this worldview, Warren’s shenanigans cost a “real” disadvantaged minority person a slot teaching at a first-rate law school. But the problem with right-leaning populism is that it embraces rentseeking. It settles for asking that the corruption be administered equitably.

Carr comes close to the truth when he tells the story of the smart kid from working-class Quincy — but falls just short of real insight. He gives in to emotional paranoia about the corrupt phone call. The best solution isn’t to “fix” the crooked preference system; it’s to eliminate rentseeking entirely because it always leads to corruption. The kid from Quincy doesn’t need a redistribution system that spreads spoils equitably; he just wants to be evaluated objectively.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

On the Left, partisans voice contempt for “box-checking” by free riders like Warren. Last summer, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud. The resolution noted that “fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants.”

In a recent editorial, The Daily News of Newburyport wrote:

It seems clear that Warren’s “box-checking” on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefited 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.

This touches on a critical point: identity politics corrupts institutions as well as people. In 1996, when Harvard Law School was criticized by campus groups for a lack of racial diversity among its faculty, officials touted Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots. According to a Harvard Crimson story at that time:

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [spokesman Michael] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

These days, Harvard’s press office says that the university doesn’t make official pronouncements about employees’ ethnic or racial backgrounds. Which seems a bit . . . carefully . . . timed.

Of course, the whole story beggars belief. Warren skeptics are even showing up on Daily Kos, the left-wing political opinion web site that practically launched the professor’s political aspirations. Its Native American columnist Meteor Blades recently wrote:

What’s unclear is whether Warren checked the “Native American” box solely out of pride or because it might perhaps give her a one- or two-percent edge over some other job candidate without that heritage. She says she didn’t. . . . What Warren also didn’t do was step up in 1996 when it became clear that Harvard, under pressure from students and others about the lack of diversity on its law faculty, was touting her Native heritage. . . . What Harvard did was despicable. What Warren didn’t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

If she’s lost Daily Kos, Warren is in deep trouble.

Others on the Left are distancing themselves from Warren, frustrated that she was supposed to be a winner and now may not be. In the online magazine Salon, Edward Mason noted:

The story about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage refuses to die. . . . Some Democrats, haunted by the infamous meltdown of Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago, are wondering if it’s déjà vu all over again. “The people in Washington are saying, ‘The people in Massachusetts are a bunch of fuck-ups who couldn’t run a race for dog catcher,’” said one veteran Massachusetts Democratic insider.

But, to me, the most relevant material came in the reader comments that followed Mason’s cautious story. One commenter earnestly tried to make sense of the hullabaloo:

At no time on any census was OC Sarah Smith, nor any of her off-spring listed as anything other than White. . . . As a contrast, my Great Great Grandmother was listed on the Census and Marriage Certificate as White Indian (Cherokee) but even my relative may not have been full blooded. There is no actual evidence, other than family lore, that Sarah Smith was Cherokee, and zero chance she was full blooded Cherokee. At best, and there’s no evidence to support this, Warren could be 1/64 Cherokee.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

Identity politics is a poison that sickens people, intellectually and spiritually. It abandons them in a madness of paranoia, pettiness, and profanity. Ambitious statists like Elizabeth Warren believe that they can manage the poison more effectively than the little people whose support they assume they have. But they’re lying — to themselves first and to the little people eventually. And inevitably.

rsquo;t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.




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