The race for U.S. Senate has taken a weird turn in Massachusetts. It’s making me very uncomfortable, and I bet I’m not alone in my reaction.
The Democratic candidate is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor. At times in the past, she identified herself as a minority in a directory of law school professors, and Harvard identified her as native American when it responded to claims that its faculty was non-diverse. Those matters have now been raised as a campaign issue — had she used her ancestry claim to gain an unfair advantage over other job applicants? — and Warren has been scrambling to substantiate her “family lore” of a native American ancestor. Genealogists now have concluded that her great-great-great-grandmother, who is therefore responsible for 1/32nd of her genetic makeup, was listed on an Oklahoma marriage certificate as a Cherokee.
I realize that all’s fair in love and political campaigns. Moreover, I can understand that if a candidate made a bogus claim about her background — by, say, falsely claiming to have served in the military or received a degree from a prestigious school — it would be fair game. Warren’s story also might cause you to ask what reported diversity statistics really mean, and it might be a topic of conversation in the native American community, as one of the articles linked above suggests.
Still, this story is unsettling. Whenever people start talking about someone’s “blood” it raises the specter of Nazi racial purity laws or the racial identity statutes enacted long ago in some southern states. Those are awful, unforgivable chapters in human history, and it’s painful to think about them.
I’ve never thought about my great-great-great-grandmother — whoever she was — but if Warren’s pride in a distant ancestor’s native American heritage caused her to self-identify as native American, too, what difference should that make to a voter? And if she listed herself as a native American for some other, less salutary reason, can’t we just allow her conscience to do its work without making the matter a political issue? Can’t we just judge her quality as a candidate based on her positions on the issues, her experience, and other relevant qualities?