Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a surprising appearance at the National Congress of American Indians this week and made an even more surprising statement that she is indeed part Native American. I have been critical of the use of this label (and name calling generally) by the President and others. Yet, the sudden discussion of the controversy was unexpected by Warren. The assumption for years is that Warren had backed off from this claim made during her academic career. She was counted by by two law schools as a Native American. Indeed, we first discussed this issue when Warren was still an academic and her claim that claiming to a Native American offered no advantage to her career. The speech comes at an interesting time for academia where more schools are allowing students to not simply choose their gender (or non-gender) but also their race.
In the videotape of the speech, Warren went after President Donald Trump for his name calling over her claim and argued that the use of “Pocahontas” was engaging in “disrespect of Native people.”
However, she then said this: “I get why some people think there’s hay to be made here. You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe. … I respect that distinction . . . I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead. I never used it to advance my career. . . . my mother’s family was part Native American.”
The reference to her career was curious. She admitted to listing herself as a minority and the law school counted her as a minority hire. She affirmatively added herself to that academic listing. Frankly, the suggestion that being a minority hire is not an advantage for either Harvard or Warren is difficult to square. Nevertheless, as I have said before, Warren had an accomplished career as an academic and remains a powerful intellect in the Senate. I do not believe that her hiring or tenure were significantly (or even marginally) influenced by the claim of minority status. She has a well earned national standing as an academic.
However, being a minority hire not only is a benefit to a faculty member and the school. Moreover, minority candidates might object that counting her as a minority impacts real minority candidates seeking positions with the school. Native Americans have also objected to Warren claiming to be Native American.
Warren was listed as a minority faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania as well as Harvard A review of her academic record however does not show references to this background. This includes her record at George Washington University where she started in college. At Rutgers where she went to law school, she affirmatively stated that she was not a minority.
Warren’s silence on the issue was taken by many as an admission that she did not have this family history. However, she is now again claiming to have Native American blood through her mother. The easiest way to demonstrating such a claim would be any number of DNA tests and perhaps she has already confirmed her maternal roots as Native American. A prior search of her records showed that, at most, she could claim to being 1/32 Cherokee.
Schools are grappling with this issue. Various schools like Brown University are allowing graduate school applicants to “self-identify” as persons of color. The change was made after objections from international and Asian American students that they are not treated historically underrepresented racial groups. States like Delaware are moving in the same direction. The Census officials have reported a sharp increase in people changing their racial or ethnic identification.
The self-identification controversy is reminiscent of the Rachel Dolezal story. She self-identified as African-American and became a NAACP official. The question is how schools will address diversity reporting if students and faculty are allowed to self-identify as persons of color or minorities. As discussed in the Warren controversy, there is no real standard for faculty claiming minority status in most schools. If Warren is 1/32 Native American, is that sufficient to claim to be Native American. Likewise, there is little ability of a school to seriously question or test such a claim.
It is not clear where this leaves schools as more faculty and students self-identify and yet publish diversity statistics. The Warren controversy is a microcosm of the growing controversy in academia.