Elizabeth Warren Under Fire For Listing Herself As Minority On Harvard Law Faculty

Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is under increasing criticism over her listing herself as a Native American as a law professor — a status reported by Harvard Law School in counting her as a minority faculty member. There is limited evidence that Warren is indeed Native American. At most, the degree of indian blood is extremely low. Warren has answered the criticism by saying that she was not trying to use minority status for her own professional benefit but to establish personal associations. The controversy has caused a buzz among law professors as to the definition of minority status for professors and students alike.


Warren listed herself as a Native American minority for years on the directory of law professors. She insisted in an interview this week that “I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group something that might happen with people who are like I am. Nothing like that ever happened, that was clearly not the use for it and so I stopped checking it off,.”

Warren is a very talented academic and I do not share the view that she was given her position at Harvard (or received her well-deserved praise as an academic) due to the claim of being a minority.

There is a mixed record on the question of her great great great grandmother. The article below says that genealogists at the New England Historic Genealogical Society were unable to support claims that her great great great grandmother is Cherokee. O.C. Sarah Smith is listed on an electronic transcript of a 1894 marriage application as Cherokee but they have been unable to find the original record. However, it would seem to be that the electronic record should give Warren the benefit of the doubt as to her beliefs in her ancestry. That does not entirely answer the question, however. Even if true, such a connection would constitute a reported 1/32 part Native American. Many Americans have such a small connection to Native Americans.

Is it relevant to running for political office if voters believe that Warren wrongly claimed or exaggerated minority status?  I see no reason why someone should not claim ancestry tied to Native Americans, no matter how tangential.  While I expect that there are a couple dozen of other bloodlines and cultures in the Warren family with equal or greater presence, it is clearly something that the family took pride in as part of its history.

Putting aside the hyper partisanship that seems to warp all analysis these days, there remains some difficult questions for the legal academy. While I do not believe that Warren’s well-earned success was due to this claim, she did make the claim for years and being a minority law professor does work to the advantage of both the academic and the school as institutions work to increase their minority numbers of both students and professors. The controversy also highlights the uncertain standards for claims of minority status among law schools. We are currently in the midst of a scandal over inflated employment numbers and the effort to impose concrete standards for how to count employment. Do we need the same reexamination of the claim of minority status or should it be entirely self-defined for each academic?

What do you think?

Source: Boston Herald

123 thoughts on “Elizabeth Warren Under Fire For Listing Herself As Minority On Harvard Law Faculty”

    1. Yeah, well Limbaugh is also the kind of guy that thinks that mispronouncing or adding a disparaging adjective to a persons name advances his argument.

      The only one I recall right now is ‘Turban Durbin’ – don’t ask me I don’t have a clue, but if I had to guess I would say it is supposed to suggest that Durbin was less than strong in the war on terror.

      In any case Limbaugh had a favorite malapropism for most of his political enemies.

      Aside from Limbaugh I haven’t know anyone since junior high used this as a tool in debate.

      It is hard to know which is more bizarre, Limbaugh or those impressed with his remarks.

      OK, maybe that was unkind. But I did not disrespect his name.

  1. Thanks, interesting stuff.

    I am not sure how their backgrounds inform the politics of either one.

    But certainly both have overcome much through their intelligence and effort.

    Their achievements also speak to the importance of social mobility, a feature of our society that many of us fear is being decreased by political and economic circumstance.

    It seems likely that neither of these two could ‘just go for it and borrow from their parents’ in order to complete college or law school.

  2. “Elizabeth Herring[2] was born June 22, 1949,[3] in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to working class parents Pauline and Donald Herring.[4] She was the Herrings’ fourth child, with three older brothers.[5] When Warren was twelve, her father, a janitor, had a heart attack, which led to a pay cut, medical bills, and eventually the loss of their car. Her mother went to work answering phones at Sears and Warren worked as a waitress.” From wikipedia. Neither Brown nor Warren came from elite backrounds.

  3. firefly,

    Brown did not have an easy life as a child. His parents divorced when he was very young. I believe both parents remarried three more times. Brown was sexually abused by a camp counselor. I haven’t heard that his family was wealthy. He did, however, attend Tufts and Boston College Law School.

  4. As I recall, it was Scott Brown who grew up in a wealthy family and it was Elizabeth Warren who had to work her way through college.

    So, the “elite” family label belongs to Scott Brown, not to Elizabeth Warren.

  5. Dagmar,

    Brown is a man of little substance. He drove around in a pickup truck and wore his “common man” barn jacket when he campaigned for Teddy Kennedy’s senate seat. I think he is deathly afraid of facing Elizabeth Warren in the November election. The “liberal” Boston media have gone pretty easy on him–maybe because his wife Gail Huff had been a broadcast journalist in this area for many years.

    *****

    This just in from the bizarro world department: teachers and cops are rich, but Senators aren’t
    http://bluemassgroup.com/2012/01/this-just-in-from-the-bizarro-world-department-teachers-and-cops-are-rich-but-senators-arent/

    Scott Brown talked to the Lowell Sun’s editorial board yesterday. He’ll no doubt get the Sun’s endorsement, but that was a given anyway, and the interview may well have done him more harm than good. Just check this out.

    Brown also took on President Barack Obama for proposing tax hikes on families who earn more than $250,000 per year, saying that would hurt “teachers, firefighters, policemen, folks who work two jobs.”

    Asked which public servants earn that much money, Brown said it is common for police officers to earn well over $100,000 annually when overtime is factored into their pay.

    “You throw in a teacher who’s working, plus a summer job, it adds up pretty quickly,” he said. “There’s quite a few of them.”

    Whoa! That’s a head-snapper right there. Apparently, the 1% is populated with teachers and cops – who knew? But, of course, this is hogwash. TPM explains why:

    It doesn’t sound like there’s an epidemic of high-income public servants based on the available data for the area. According to Salary.com, which tracks average pay across various professions, 90% of Boston police patrol officers made a base salary below $75,307 last year and 90% of Lowell patrol officers made a base salary below $70,857. 90% of firefighters in Boston make under $68,793, and below $64,729 in Lowell. The average teacher in Lowell makes about $80,841 a year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education, higher than the statewide average of $68,781.

    It is, of course, possible that there’s a handful of teacher/cop couples whose combined income exceeds $250,000 – as TPM notes, “a couple hundred turnpike cops were found to be making $100k+ salaries in 2009 thanks to prodigious overtime numbers, for example, and in theory some of them have a spouse in a similar position.” But we’re talking a trivial number of people. One might also ask whether, if a two-cop family is indeed making over $250,000, there’s some good reason that they should nonetheless pay less tax than other high-income earners.

    Brown was also asked about his own salary.

    “No one has ever really asked, but if they want to see what Gail and I pay, then whatever. I don’t care,” said Brown, referring to his wife, former Boston television reporter Gail Huff. “It’s not a heck of a lot. I mean, you know, I don’t make a heck of a lot, so I’m paying what I should be paying. Trust me.”

    Brown, who earns $174,000 as a senator and received a $700,000 advance to pen his autobiography, was asked to clarify his comment.

    “I mean, aside from the book deal that I got, which is really a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I get paid what every member of Congress is paid,” he said.

    Wow. So we need to worry about all those cops and teachers who are raking it in, but Scott Brown, who earns nearly $200,000 all by himself, never mind what his TV personality wife makes, plus all those book advances and the rest of it, “do[es]n’t make a heck of a lot.” I can think of a lot of people who wouldn’t mind not making “a heck of a lot” the way Brown does.

    Nobody is claiming that Scott Brown’s wealth is anything like, say, Mitt Romney’s – obviously, it is not. But when Brown starts getting worried about the teachers and cops who are in danger of climbing into the 1%, while also thinking that he and his wife don’t make “a heck of a lot” even though they are almost surely in the top 5% of income earners nationally … well, let’s just say it makes one wonder whether Scott Brown really has any clue about this stuff.

  6. I can’t believe the comments that Warren cannot identify as Native American because she doesn’t “look” Native American or her ancestry is too remote. The different tribes have sovereign power to determine who is a member of the tribe. A person can identify as a Native American without being a member of a tribe. This whole discussion illustrates that we are hung up on our ridiculous 19th century definitions of “race” when science has rejected race as a meaningful concept of human classification. Is the Brown campaign so far removed from a member of the Reichstag in Hitler’s Germany accusing an electoral opponent of falsely claiming to be a Jew?

  7. Elaine,
    Can you get it placed in a Massachusetts newspaper, like the BH?
    Well written too. Makes me envious for that alone.

    SwM, thank you too.

    “There should be a law…..”,.as some would say.
    ???
    Outlawing Republicans.

    I think Google should start a new type of political ad. You buy and specify placement near Warren and negative birther sentiments on Warren. Google does the scanning and instant ad space buying with the publicatio. When the laptop notices your eyes perusing such an article, the Google ad emit a loud raspberry. Think it’ll sell?

  8. Swarthmore mom,

    When I began reading your comment, I thought those were your words at first. Thanks to you, I found Maillard’s opinion piece in the New York Times:

    Elizabeth Warren’s Birther Moment
    http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/elizabeth-warrens-birther-moment/

    Excerpt:
    If you are 1/32 Cherokee and your grandfather has high cheekbones, does that make you Native American? It depends. Last Friday, Republicans in Massachusetts questioned the racial ancestry of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate candidate. Her opponent, Senator Scott Brown, has accused her of using minority status as an American Indian to advance her career as a law professor at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas. The Brown campaign calls her ties to the Cherokee and Delaware nations a “hypocritical sham.”

    In a press conference on Wednesday, Warren defended herself, saying, “Native American has been a part of my story, I guess since the day I was born, I don’t know any other way to describe it.” Despite her personal belief in her origins, her opponents have seized this moment in an unnecessary fire drill that guarantees media attention and forestalls real debate.

    This tactic is straight from the Republican cookbook of fake controversy. First, you need a rarefied elected office typically occupied by a certain breed of privileged men. Both the Presidency and the Senate fit this bill. Second, add a bit of interracial intrigue. It could be Kenyan economists eloping with Midwestern anthropologists, or white frontiersmen pairing with indigenous women. Third, throw in some suspicion about their qualifications and ambitions. Last but not least, demand documentation of ancestry and be dissatisfied upon its receipt. Voila! You have a genuine birther movement.

    The Republican approach to race is to feign that it is irrelevant — until it becomes politically advantageous to bring it up. Birthers question Obama’s state of origin (and implicitly his multiracial heritage) in efforts to disqualify him from the presidency. They characterize him as “other.” For Warren, Massachusetts Republicans place doubts on her racial claims to portray her as an opportunistic academic seeking special treatment. In both birther camps, opponents look to ancestral origins as the smoking gun, and ride the ambiguity for the duration.

    Proving Native American ancestry is a complex, bureaucratic process. It’s more than showing up at the tribal enrollment office with a family bible and some black and white pictures. Many people are rejected, even when family lore tells them otherwise. Tribal citizenship depends on descent from an enrolled ancestor, and every tribe has its own requirements.

  9. If I get high with cough syrup, does that make me a MD or an astronaut? I know it will not be healthy if I do it all too often.

  10. @Swarthmore mom

    People like me think that Warrens remarks regarding her ethnic background are hilarious and distinguish her as one the finer comedic minds Harvard has produced in recent years.

    But the question that interest most on this blog is ‘should these remarks influence ones decision to vote for or against her in the senate race’.

    Well, no, not unless you are electing her to give long reminiscence on her ethnic upbringing.

    The proper scope for deciding to vote for or against her is her stand on the issues.

    The fact is that Warren has shown a lot of understanding regarding the finance industry.

    The fact is that this is an industry that suggested that it did not need regulation because its products were so complex that government regulators could not understand the business. This is a business that argued that its clients were so sophisticated that they did not need the protection of regulation.

    I think we all know how deregulation worked out. The result was the greatest economic decline since the great depression of the thirties of the last century. The result was a decline that would have been far, far worse if the government had not stepped in and pulled the finance industry back from the abyss.

    This is a business that would be walking around with holes in its socks selling apples on the corner if it were not for ordinary people like you and me who through our elected representatives bailed them out. Yet they have the nerve, the audacity, and the plain bad sense to tell us to leave them alone, they have it all figured out. Does anyone really believe that the finance business has identified and corrected the excesses of the past?

    Warren not only has a great sense of humor, she understands finance. And she is tough enough to stand up to some of the toughest business men in the country.

    Not only that, she is tough enough to worry some of the toughest business men in the country.

    If that is not a great endorsement I don’t know what is.

  11. “This merits a reexamination of the difficult question of what it means to be Native. Does that make the Chickasaw kid from Buckhead in Atlanta any less Native than the Navajo faculty candidate from Windy Gap? What does a Native even look like? It’s more than long black hair, feathers and beads. At the same time, it is more than checking a box.

    Someone’s subjective opinion about her heritage may conflict with tribal requirements for membership. The standards are not constant, and they may change with new tribal governments. This happened in my tribe in 2002, when the new chief decided that some members were not “Indian enough.” Even at home, the tribal government falls into stereotypes.

    For the Cherokee Nation, Warren is “Indian enough;” she has the same blood quantum as Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker. For non-Natives, this may be surprising. They expect to see “high cheekbones,” as Warren described her grandfather as having, or tan skin. They want to know of pow wows, dusty reservations, sweat lodges, peyote and cheap cigarettes. When outsiders look at these ostensibly white people as members of Native America, they don’t see minorities. As a result, Warren feels she must satisfy these new birthers and justify her existence.

    Looked at from the inside, however, the Warren controversy is all new. When the Brown campaign accused Elizabeth Warren of touting herself as American Indian to advance her career, this was news to Native law professors. We have a good eye for welcoming faculty to the community and identifying promising scholars. We know where people teach, what they have published and we honor them when they die. Harvard Law School named its first Native American tenured professor? Really? In our small indigenous faculty town, we would have heard about it already.”

    Kevin Noble Maillard is a law professor at Syracuse University and a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. He is the co-editor of “Loving v. Virginia is a Post Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage,” which will be published later this month. NYT

  12. PatricParamedic, Rafflaw, pete, Shano

    I am content being human, having spent most os my life as a Martian residing on Earth. The tranformation process is not finished yet.

    However, I don’t know what boxes are available (only residents are censused?), but would gladly check “human” if I could.
    If pressed my ignorance would produce Scotch-Irish, English, and Norwegian. We were not into genealogy.

    But if my aunt with those blood lines marries a NA, then to my way of thinking, that in NO way makes me to any percent NA. However as one would have it, all we born here are NA. But human is my choice.

    I would gladly add several hundred more ethnicities to my checklist, just to claim them as kin. Particularly with the “primitive” ones who decided not to go the “king” route, property ownership, and were sharing long before Jesus came.

    A swedish author gives me a joke to finish off with:
    A bushlady was asked by the other ladies, chatting while processing the results of their food collection, “What is your favorite sex position?”
    She replied: “Why, on my hands and knees in the doorway to my hut where I can look out at my husband’s silly struttings, while my lover takes me from behind.”
    Wouldn’t we all love to have her as an aunt?

    The authors name is Berg. You’ll recognize his titles.

  13. “I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group something that might happen with PEOPLE WHO ARE LIKE I AM.”

    “Warren . . . was not trying to use minority status for her own professional benefit but to establish personal associations.”

    Now there’s a fine line to draw in the sand, and scarcely the brightest frame of mind for a Harvard legal educator.

    I would far rather Ms. Warren have believed that our lot as a society isn’t likely to improve much, until we awaken to recognize the inherent damage done by hyphenations.

    Maybe their intent was once to clarify. Who knows. But the reality is, in the year 2012, hyphenations function as totally unnecessary barriers; they set us apart; they demand overt recognition; they divide us.

    If simply saying you are an American isn’t enough, maybe we need to re-evaluate our goals.

  14. An example of the Turd Blossom at work attempting to smear Warren:

    Rove-backed Crossroads GPS Ad Smears Elizabeth Warren (Again)
    Ari Berman
    December 8, 2011
    http://www.thenation.com/blog/165053/rove-backed-crossroads-gps-ad-smears-elizabeth-warren-again

    Excerpt:
    The last ad the Karl Rove–backed Crossroads GPS ran against Elizabeth Warren, which sought to tie her to violence at Occupy Wall Street, was one of the most disingenuous and inaccurate ads of the 2012 cycle. Their new ad against Warren is even worse—ludicrously suggesting that Warren supported the Wall Street bailout and has done the bidding of the biggest banks.

    First Crossroads claimed that Warren was the intellectual godmother of Occupy Wall Street. Now they’re claiming she’s Wall Street’s best friend. So much for consistency!

    Simon Johnson does the fact-checking that Crossroads GPS obviously didn’t bother to do. He notes at least five major inaccuracies in the new ad:

    1. TARP was a Republican program—proposed and implemented by President George W. Bush. At the time, Ms. Warren was busy championing people whose rights had been trampled by the financial sector through various kinds of abuses.

    2. Ms. Warren became chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) for TARP, precisely because people in Congress—on both sides of the aisle—trusted her to provide an honest and professional check on the support provided to financial firms. She did her highest profile work during the Obama administration, bringing relentless pressure on the Treasury and other agencies who just wanted to prop up big firms without any conditions.

    3. Ms. Warren has also been a strong supporter of all efforts to rein in Too Big To Fail banks, including by breaking them up. She has consistently been one of the strongest advocates for curtailing the abusive power of megabanks (and others who have behaved badly).

    4. At the same time, Ms. Warren has not demonized the financial sector. On the contrary, when charged with setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she went out of her way to work closely with those in the financial sector who provide sensible products with reasonable conditions. Her emphasis throughout has been on transparency, fairness, and full disclosure in this sector. You are not allowed to sell dangerous toasters in the United States; her point is that you should not be allowed to sell financial products that have been proven dangerous.

    5. The idea that Elizabeth Warren would ever side with “big banks” against the middle class is preposterous. Time and again, she has stuck up for the middle class (and anyone who uses financial services) – even when it was deeply unfashionable to do so. The big banks have opposed her relentlessly and on-the-record, both directly and through various surrogates

    In a way, the Crossroads ad, despite its blatant falsehoods, is an admission that Warren’s brand of progressive populism is deeply resonant with voters. Her message of accountability for Wall Street and advocacy on behalf of consumers scares the bejesus out of Republicans. Indeed, in a new Boston Herald poll, where Warren leads Scott Brown by seven points, voters say they trust Warren more than Brown to fight for middle-class families and effectively regulate Wall Street.

  15. Elizabeth Warren may be only 1/32 Native Americans, but Scott Brown appears to be 31/32 jerk.

  16. I am 3/4 American Indian enrolled in the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. I worked for Indian Health Service, part of HHS, and the required blood quantum for services from IHS is 1/4. I believe this is true for any BIA benefits. Thus, I believe her listing the American Indian heritage is only giving people a full picture of her heritage. And, I don’t think she would even get any benefit from Affirmative Action with that small blood quantum. Some one above also mentioned that there was a period when admitting to an American Indian heritage could have been detrimental to the person’s life style, which is very true. [As an aside, I use the term, “American Indian” because while it is a misnomer, I believe it is more descriptive of my heritage than “native American,” which means anyone born in America.] But, this does seem to be an time-wasting issue.

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