Who knew that Massachusetts would provide an opportunity to add a touch of color to the almost-all-white U.S. Senate? Who knew that when Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren tailored her professional biography to cultivate ties with people who are “like I am,” she had in mind not left-leaning academics, or advanced-degreed professional women, or bankruptcy-policy wonks, but Oklahoma Cherokees? There is a rich vein of humor in the Boston Herald’s revelation that Harvard Law School touted the clearly Caucasian Warren as a Native American, and that for nine years Warren listed her ancestry in the same manner in official law-school directories.
To be sure, the Warren campaign handled the damage-control front with a skilled deflection: Team Warren has professed much outrage over any insinuation that the candidate’s climb up the academic ladder was given a boost by affirmative action (a claim her Republican opponent, incumbent senator Scott Brown, has not remotely made), and The New Republic has equated the whole thing with far-right birtherism regarding Barack Obama’s background. It’s a clever dodge that minimizes Warren’s creative use of her ancestry while reviving the liberal meme that Republicans have a beef with achievements that don’t belong to white men.
Here’s one hope that Warren doesn’t get away with it so easily. For all the mirth that has greeted the disclosures, there is a serious thicket of questions here for Professor Warren and an embarrassing glimpse into the East Coast elite liberalism that she represents. One appropriate line of inquiry is whether Warren’s drive to reestablish her Cherokee roots manifested itself in any tangible outreach to Native Americans in, say, her home state of Oklahoma, who may not have perused law-school-association guides. The marginalized young adults in that community would certainly have relished a connected, powerful role model, and it is fair game to press Warren on whether the ethnic pride she described last week ever led her to be that person. It is equally legitimate to ask whether Warren ever used the Native American identification in any context other than a directory that would have been a primary resource for law-school recruiters and headhunters.
There is also a window here into the facile way liberalism often engages race. Regardless of whether Warren’s ancestral roots boosted her chances at a professorship, Harvard Law thought enough of them to advance those roots in defense of its hiring practices — it was in response to a 1996 story about the absence of minority hires at the law school that a spokesman offered up Warren as an example. It was a telling reflex from an institution whose faculty and administration then and now are near-exclusively white, despite an impressive array of minority students and a proud and self-conscious embrace of diversity. Within the school’s center of power, diversity is suddenly not such a driving force, and its demands are satisfied with results that are paper thin and, if the reference to Warren is indicative, more than a little contrived. (I should note that during the four months I spent recently as a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, I encountered not a single African-American staffer; there was one Hispanic administrator, who departed suddenly, and one Latina on the support staff whom I saw once. I suppose crimson neither fades nor changes very much.)
It’s entirely fair and accurate to describe Harvard’s hiring policies as emblematic of a particular leftist contradiction on race: an emphasis on public values like admitting minority students in robust numbers combined with a reluctance to make internal changes that would hit closer to home. It is the familiar evasion of high-powered law firms that extol their pro bono activity while their offices are the least racially diverse major business enterprises in New York and Washington; or of news organizations that are aggressively vigilant for signs of racial intolerance on the right but whose own management ranks are only marginally more inclusive than a country club.
It would be instructive to know whether Warren especially cared that her hundred-year-old ancestral links passed for diversity in Harvard’s faculty lounge, or whether she got bent out of shape by Harvard’s promiscuous use of her lineage. If she didn’t — and she has not claimed that she took offense — the silence diminishes the “authenticity” that is such a carefully cultivated part of Warren’s appeal. An authentic truth teller would have recognized that her name was being invoked by Harvard in a disingenuous way.
The episode should also be a sore spot for a candidate who has made powerful use of her biography and the admirable striving in her life story. The implication might be that Warren is less a crusader than one more media-savvy politician who knows how to spin a personal history to make it bolder and more vivid than the facts warrant; and that when the narrative is inspected carefully, it fades to gray. The divorcee whose financial plight made her a populist blurs into the media superstar whose best fundraising base is the toniest slice of Hollywood. Her working-class origins and her criticisms of non-wage-based wealth segue into the hefty portfolio of a near-seven-figure tax bracket, hundreds of thousands of dollars in “consulting fees,” and a $5 million home. There are traces of it all two decades ago, in the Native American hiring stat that turned out to be Elizabeth Warren.
— Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.