Why Not Just Be 'an American'?

By Linda Chavez

February 8, 2019 5 min read

Sen. Elizabeth Warren's insistence that she is Native American has drawn racial taunts from President Donald Trump, who frequently refers to her as "Pocahontas," as well as reprimands from tribal leaders, who note that tribes themselves determine tribal membership. She has frequently said that she grew up believing she had Native American ancestors and occasionally claimed her family is Cherokee and Delaware, even offering a recipe for a cookbook titled "Pow Wow Chow." Earlier this year, Warren released the results of DNA tests that showed she did have a very distant relative — in the neighborhood of six to 10 generations ago — who was Native American, but that is hardly the impression she has tried to give over the years. This week, The Washington Post revealed a handwritten document, submitted in 1986 when Warren became a member of the Texas state bar, in which she listed her race as "American Indian." This latest controversy in Sen. Warren's identity politics threatens to complicate her bid for the presidency.

Why should it matter what race or ethnic origin Sen. Warren claims? Under usual circumstances, it wouldn't. Looking at Sen. Warren — with her fair skin, blue eyes and blond hair — one would assume she is of northern European ancestry. But because she has taken it on herself to assert that she is not what she appears but is rather a member of a group that has long faced discrimination in America, the claim takes on significance — especially in the Democratic Party. The field of Democratic candidates who have announced their candidacy for president or are about to is a veritable rainbow of minorities. From former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, whose grandmother was a Mexican immigrant, to Sen. Kamala Harris, whose parents were born in Jamaica and India, to Sen. Cory Booker, a man whose ancestors include both blacks and whites, as noted in an episode of "Finding Your Roots," to Tulsi Gabbard, born in American Samoa to a white mother and part-Samoan father, the Democratic candidates are the most ethnically diverse in the history of U.S. presidential politics. There is much to be applauded in such an ethnically and racially broad group of candidates, but more because of what it says about success and assimilation in the American model than it does about discrimination.

The new industry of DNA testing has made it possible for Americans to get a better idea about their origins than relying on family myth. In melting-pot America, the desire to discover more about ancestry is driven by a sense that most of us have ancestors who hailed from someplace else and the wish to learn more about where that was. But Sen. Warren's quest seems very different. By asserting actual kinship with Native Americans, she has frequently used her "roots" to play a role in identity politics. She listed herself as Native American on prestigious law school faculties where she taught and as a "minority" professor in the Association of American Law Schools' staff directories, among other places. But nothing in Warren's background suggests that Native American culture, much less tribal affiliation, was hers to claim. Whether she gained any benefit from her "minority" status in affirmative action hiring is difficult to assess, but it definitely made her a part of the cool diversity crowd on campus, where being a white woman wouldn't automatically have entitled admission.

Perhaps the best rebuke to Warren was inadvertently given by her rival for the Democratic nomination, Kamala Harris. When asked whether she had ever grappled with introspection about her own mixed-race status, Harris quickly answered, "No." She explained to The Washington Post that when she first ran for office, she didn't like having to define herself into a compartment: "I am who I am. I'm good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I'm fine with it." Harris has solved her own racial identity by calling herself "an American." Elizabeth Warren might think of dropping the "Native" and do the same.

Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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