Self-Identification or Self-Advancement? Warren’s Controversy Highlights The Long-Standing Debate Over Race Claims

Below is my column in The Hill Newspaper on the long-standing debate over self-identification of race — an issue brought again to the forefront by the Elizabeth Warren controversy. There is a broader issue here that impacts universities and businesses on how race should be confirmed when used professionally or academically or financially. There is an ongoing debate over self-identification of race and whether such questions are simply cultural rather than genetic.

For Warren, the desire to focus on her race announced this weekend may be overshadowed by the other race issue.

Here is the column:

For Senator Elizabeth Warren, the promise of to use DNA to “celebrate how we all came to be” must have had a distinctly loathsome meaning this week. On the day of her highly anticipated announcement as a Democratic candidate for president, Warren is facing new questions in her long standing controversy over claims of Native American ancestry.

New allegations concern the discovery of a Texas legal bar registration form from 1986, on which Warren listed herself as “American Indian.” This claim of race, in her own handwriting, showed an unsolicited invocation by Warren that she is a person of color. However, her ancestry story has highlighted an even larger controversy over what actually constitutes minority status and how such claims of race can or should be confirmed.

Politicians and celebrities often seek compelling personal narratives of overcoming adversities or challenges. Warren has been dogged by other past claims. She once declared herself the first “nursing mother” to take the New Jersey bar exam, which seems not only unprovable but unlikely, since the first female lawyer in the state received a license back in 1895.

I have long had mixed feelings about the ancestry story told by Warren. Suggestions that Warren used her claimed status to secure academic positions is unproven. Her claim that she is a minority was not the reason for her considerable success as an academic. Warren has not only won teaching awards as a law professor but her writings on bankruptcy and financial markets made her a sharp intellectual with global reach. That does not mean such claims do not raise ethical or professional issues.

The Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a resolution several years ago calling on law schools to treat the practice of “box checking” minority status as academic “ethnic fraud.” Warren listed herself as a minority on the Association of American Law Schools directory and had her ethnicity changed from white to Native American at the University of Pennsylvania. She was listed as a minority at Harvard, which publicly highlighted her as a “Native American” law professor. The Fordham Law Review identified her as the “first woman of color” at Harvard, and she identified herself as “Cherokee” in a cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow.”

Warren rekindled the controversy over her minority status after making public a DNA test that showed a possible fraction of Native American heritage. Stanford University Professor Carlos Bustamante found that Warren may be 0.09 percent to 1.5 percent Native American. That is quite common and would place any of her possible ancestors between six to 10 generations back. If her great-great-great-grandmother were full Native American, Warren would be 1/32 Native American, but it could date back further to 10 generations, thus making her only 1/1,024 Native American.

The response from Native American groups who denounced Warren for using DNA to show ancestry was interesting. Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin insisted that “using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” Warren privately apologized to the tribe for using a DNA test to establish status as a Native American.

The suggestion here is that actual DNA is not the measure of ancestry for Native Americans. Hoskin said that the tribe uses DNA to resolve issues of “paternity to an individual” but that “it is not evidence for tribal affiliation.” Notably, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker is 1/32 Cherokee by blood. Yet, such ancestry is key to claiming not just minority status but also eligibility to share in revenues and benefits from tribal accounts and enterprises. The standards differ from tribe to tribe. Michael Woestehoff of the National Indian Gaming Association has explained that membership in the Navajo Nation requires that a person have 1/4 or more Navajo blood.

The same controversy rages on at universities, which do little to confirm minority status, making such “box checking” on college applications a self identification process. The Census Bureau approach is based solely on self identification. Since 2000, it has allowed people to check multiple boxes for races and ethnicities. Brown University attracted attention for proposing a pure self identification system for “people of color.” A host of programs can hinge on minority status, from government contracts to academic admissions to employment opportunities to financial benefits. Yet, the basis for claiming minority status remains fluid and uncertain.

When George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, the shooting was portrayed as a white man who killed an African American youth, even though Zimmerman is half Hispanic. Jefferson Fish, author of “Myth of Race,” suggested that Zimmerman could be defined as black because he is 1/32 black from family on the side of his mother. Nonetheless, Fish insisted that “Zimmerman’s race is a matter of cultural, not biological information. So different American subcultures classify him differently.”

That, however, does not answer how race should be legally confirmed when substantial financial, academic, and professional benefits are at stake. It seems clear to most of us that Warren should not have claimed minority status, but there is little agreement on why. The criticism of her use of a DNA test to establish her ancestry begs the question of how to objectively answer such questions. Can anyone be “culturally” part of a race or ethnicity, or is that the ultimate form of cultural appropriation?

On the one side, there is the repugnance of accepting the notion of the “one drop rule” in some states that any African blood makes someone black. On the other side, there is the understandable resistance to those people like Warren claiming to be a person of color due to having as little as 0.09 percent DNA from an ancestor who has Native American blood.

It is far from clear that her claim of being a person of color is the story of “how she came to be” a leading academic. However, it is clear how this came to be the primary subject for Warren in her bid for the presidency. Voters will decide the extent to which they view the earlier claims to be disqualifying. Yet, that is just one job dispute. We still have to decide how to deal with such claims for thousands of other applications or positions.

That may prove to be what is most discomforting for many. This question has been carefully avoided for years at universities and other institutions. Schools want to boost minority enrollment and agencies want to benefit marginalized groups. What they are not eager to do is face the difficult question on how such claims should be confirmed. While hardly her intention, Warren may have now forced that long delayed discussion.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

57 thoughts on “Self-Identification or Self-Advancement? Warren’s Controversy Highlights The Long-Standing Debate Over Race Claims”

  1. I am telling my grand kids to check the Native American box from now on. They were born here in the USA that is in America so they are native to this area. Seem everybody else who checks a box gets a hands up for whatever reason whether or not they need it.

  2. The book “DNA USA” by Byron Sykes has helped me better understand what is possible, and what is not possible, in terms of pinning down individual ethnic ancestrage via DNA.
    If people only knew how much racial and ethnic mixing has been going on the past 500 years, they would perhaps begin to question the use of “colloquial” or “street” racial classifications, which form the basis for most self-classifications. This is the trap Elizabeth Warren fell into, innocently I’d wager. There amount of error in these judgments should immediately rule out “checkboxes” in any official capacity.

    I recommend watching a few episodes of “Finding Your Roots” with Dr. Henry Luis Gates, where a combination of geneology-record-searching and DNA are used to research the ancestry of celebrities. Keenan Ivory Wayans’ segment was spectacular. The Wayans (who produced the comedy farce “White Chicks”) are traceable back to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, where ancient seafarers from Taiwan built a society mixed with black Africans. When Keenan saw his DNA report, he quipped “All these years I thought I was black….I’m a Chinaman!”.

    The simplest answer to JT’s challenge is to just accept a postracial framework for our society going forward. Under postracialism, there is no significance attached to skin color or genetic background. That doesn’t rule out opportunity-inviting programs and pathways. It simply means that eligibility criteria are based on factors like poverty, health handicaps, family dysfunction, etc — things that identity need for opportunity.

    The postracial alternative to multiculturalism offers many advantages and simplifications, not the least being that the problem of making accurate racial classifications is immediately solved by design. The evidence is overwhelming that there are no hard classification boundaries to be provided by the most objective means possible, scientific DNA. The postracial mindset benefits in other ways, by placing the focus on “actionables”, factors that are open to change through self-development and life choices (rather than on “immutables” such as race and ethnicity). For example, postracial sociology research only studies actionable independent variables leading to health and wellbeing, meaning that any correlations uncovered can be applied toward self-improvement. By contrast, the current miasma of multicultural sociology offers little or nothing actionable, only hand-wringing and shaming and blaming (“e.g., white privilege”).

    Postracials are committed to learning the social skills that make it possible to interact positively and warmly with individuals of all backgrounds. The first step is learning more about the psychology research with infants that reveals that every human comes into the world wired up with tribalistic instincts (self-similar preferences). Conscious effort therefore must be applied to overrule these innate impulses, and this applies to all people regardless of ethnicity.

    The debate JT is outlining in his piece is real, and when it becomes more obvious that there a reliable, objective system of racial/ethnic classification is an impossibility, a postracial alternative is there to save the day.

  3. here’s an interesting article from five years ago or so.

    race is real

    By NICHOLAS WADE May 9, 2014
    A longstanding orthodoxy among social scientists holds that human races are a social construct and have no biological basis. A related assumption is that human evolution halted in the distant past, so long ago that evolutionary explanations need never be considered by historians or economists.

    In the decade since the decoding of the human genome, a growing wealth of data has made clear that these two positions, never at all likely to begin with, are simply incorrect. There is indeed a biological basis for race. And it is now beyond doubt that human evolution is a continuous process that has proceeded vigorously within the last 30,000 years and almost certainly — though very recent evolution is hard to measure — throughout the historical period and up until the present day.

    long article with a lot to think about. check it out

    1. Yes, DNA shows clearly that there is a genetic basis for race. However, as regards making a scientific classification of every individual into a racial group, that’s also shown by DNA to be an impossibility, due to the past 500 years of global racial mixing.

      Therefore, we can disabuse progressive sociologists of their notion that race is purely a social construct. It’s a false narrative.

      On the other hand, we should also be able to get rid of “checkboxes” for use in making economic, career or social inclusion decisions, based on the now provable fact that self-identification into a single race is inaccurate and misleading for around 2/3 of the population.

      1. it has a biological and a social component just like family.
        race is just an idea that represents aspects of the world.
        it’s overly moralized in different directions.

        and it remains very useful concept for many purposes.
        as both common sense and marketing tells us with certainty.

        the thing i don’t like is where Democrats can use “Race” as a basis to take our stuff,
        but we can’t use “Race” as a basis to defend ourselves from that.
        How fair is that? Sorry, I don’t agree to cooperate.

  4. So if Eliz Warren wakes up one morning and decides she is a man, that’s perfectly fine, but identifying as Comanche is terrible because we all get to decide for her how much Indian DNA is or isn’t enough. Hmmmm…..y’all seem rather crazy, don’t cha think? 😹😹😹

  5. I have long had mixed feelings about the ancestry story told by Warren. Suggestions that Warren used her claimed status to secure academic positions is unproven.

    Suggest you enumerate how many others were hired for tenure-track positions at Harvard Law School with degrees from the schools in the strata of those she attended. Nothing wrong with the University of Houston and Rutgers-Newark. It’s just that applications from people who trained at public institutions (bar ‘Public Ivies’ like UVa) tend to get round-filed when they arrive on the desks of hiring managers at snooty prestige-obsessed institutions.

    (The hoo ha about her Cherokee ancestors is likely derived from being descended of a woman who lived in the old Indian Territory, with whoever originated this lore not realizing that most of the population resident there ca. 1895 was white. It’s a reasonable wager that Warren traded it it in minor ways to make her bland self seem more interesting, then realized it could be leveraged for professional advancement. Sorry for her that she grew prominent enough for this silly bit of performance art to be exposed for what it was).

    1. a lot of white people in america have a story of a remote Indian ancestor but not many have the gall to call themselves Natives in an attempt to score a quote slot.

  6. Doncha just get bone-weary tired of hearing about race? Who the hell cares? Only the ignorant. We now have Latinas and Natives in congress. Deal with it. Watch their performance, track their dealings/votes, make them transparent, and see if their race really matters. Damn, there ain’t no cure for stupid!

    1. I don’t grow tired of hearing about things that help me survive in the real world.

      here is a work of art that explores the relationship between the individual, the racial group, and the state. A work of the highly talented Ice T.

  7. In this morning’s news, Jennifer Lopez is being slammed for “cultural appropriation” for performing a Motown musical medley at the Grammy Awards ceremony. So Hispanics can’t sing Motown songs, and white people aren’t allowed to do the “moon walk.” By giving in to this nonsense, we’re only making it worse.

    1. I love it. Motown doesnt deserve JLo is the actual reality. Look at Detroit. oh well it’s in a big recover supposedly. Well I can show you some places that clearly haven’t recovered and they won’t any time soon.

      Take a wild guess at what the successful “recovery” endeavors do not involve. I will just ask the question and leave that to the wild imagination. Here’s a clue: a lot of them are similar to the Jlo Motown recovery in a very conspicuous way.

    2. I’m not Hispanic (as far as I know). I’ve eaten burritos before, and I feel totally guilty about it. And Chinese food, for that matter.

  8. She just wanted to celebrate her (non) heritage as an American Indian, not for advancement. What’s sad is like all these DemoSocialist she’s getting away with it.

  9. The Democrat party needs identity politics in order to survive and reel in new voters to their side. They talk about ‘unity’ and ‘inclusiveness’ yet they are the party that constantly divides and labels people and puts them in baskets based on race, class, gender, or some other ‘identity.’ They even have a basket for ‘deplorables’.

  10. A better discussion might be: why we should consider the genetic makeup of a human being at all! End this insanity!

    1. Ancestry can give relevant and useful information, that’s why. Common sense tells you so. It’s hardly all.

      I”ll tell you something more akin to insanity: the idea we are all the same. We aren’t.

      1. That’s right. White people from northern Europe are definitely superior….. Just ask Adolf H.

  11. It’s like when we say Barack Obama, who was raised by his white mother and his white grandparents and his Indonesian step father — is the first black president. But over in England they say Megan Markle, who was raised by her black mother and white father, is a biracial princess.

    If Barack Obama had married a white woman and had kids, would he be called biracial or black? Nevermind, because we all know if he had not married a black woman and had a black family alongside him, he would never have been elected president in the first place. Being “black” was his ticket to ride.

    1. Don’t forget “articulate” and “clean”. He had that going for him as well. According to Joe Biden, anyway.

      1. Yeah that was a good one.

        And how about when Michelle Obama said during an interview that she was skeptical about Barack Obama when they first met. Why did she say that?

        Her skepticism was warranted, she told the interviewer, because in her mind: you can’t trust a black guy who is doted on by so many white people.

        Say Whaaat? Oh yes she did.

  12. It is a timely topic for discussion. We should be past the oppressive racism era and should also be passed the affirmative action era. Intermarriage, at some point, makes the idea of “race” irrelevant. We need to talk about real challenges like how to solve genetic lack of empathy, learning disorders, climate devastation, nuclear Armageddon, how to develop a fair and balanced economic system, and how to develop a political system that rewards merit rather than inheritance and name recognition.

    1. Intermarriage eats away at the numbers of a coherent ethnic group, but if they have gumption they will stick to it.

      in the BIble God Himself tells the Israelites that it’s a sin. Alan Dershowitz a secular atheist Jew, talked about he important role that had on preserving the ethnic group over the ages, and wrote a book denouncing intermarriage between Jew and Gentile called “the Vanishing Jew.” The largest ethnic group in the world the Han Chinese eschew intermarriage, and “caste” endures as a peristent social reality in India many decades after it was legally abolished.

      “Intermarriage” is not the norm of human conduct it is the exception. Race and ethnicity are not going away any time soon. Nor do it need to go away. It’s a natural part of human social identity.

      I reject the notion we should all intermarry. Then we lose our “diversity!” I welcome Democrats to keep harping incessantly on the identity politics stuff because it helps remind my people– “whites–” that if they lose their ability to cooperate as a group, destruction awaits.

      That said, ethnic groups can live in peace and harmony, and we should aim for that.

  13. Justin Fairfax, the Lt. Governor of VA (currently embroiled in accusations of rape), touts that his great-great-great-grandfather was a slave who was freed in 1798. Since he benefits from his association with a quite distant ancestor, why shouldn’t Elizabeth Warren? At this point, for both of them, any DNA is down to about 1/32 or less, so the real association is family lore and personal marketing. So long as we reward on the basis of race, we will have ambitious people researching their lineage to claim most-favored-racial status.

  14. According to the National Geographic DNA analysis, my ancestors left Africa 180,000 years ago. Does that mean I’m an African-American. I also have a small percentage of Neanderthal ancestry. When my wife saw that she said, “Well…..that explains a lot!”

    1. An interesting scientific question is, how long did it take the African emigrees to turn white, after they left the “old country”? There is no doubt that our ancestors were all black before they left. believe I read that a skeleton was found in England whose DNA indicated blue eyes but very dark skin.

  15. Race will continue to be an issue as long as people choose make it one.

    There are considerable moneyed and political interests in keeping the controversy in perpetual motion. Then there exists a herd mentality among political sheep who digest rhetoric dictated to them by several powers to be who simply bleat as they are told.

    As long as there is something for nefarious individuals to profit from, race will continue to be a prominent topic of contention.

    1. Darren, it sounds like you’re talking about “FOXNEWS” Or the Republican party since the “Southern Strategy” or maybe “States rights” from St. Ronnie’s speech in 1980 in Philadelphia Mississippi.

      1. No, he’s not talking about that, and it’s an utterly false analogy, kid. You might learn something other than stupid talking points.

        1. An interesting exchange. I think Freeman is probably not that smart about this.

          Wallace admitted he was Jewish. He did not elaborate. But Jewish people are great at remembering their own history with special commemorations.

          For example. At Passover, they remember the time God sent his angels to slay the children of their oppressors, the Egyptians, which caused Pharoah to cut them loose.

          At Purim the remember the time Haman, tried to kill them off, back when they were enslaved in Babylon.

          At Hannukah, they remember the time the Greek King of Syria made them eat pork and so forth, and they slew his guard, that was the first miracle of channukah, then they had the oil that burned a long time, etc

 Tisha B’av covers the destruction of the Temple, that would remember Babylonians, Romans, and Queen Elizabeth throwing them out of Spain, too apparently

          you get the idea. Jews are really successful and have outlived a lot of their oppressors. Nietzsche wrote about this in Genealogy of Morals. So yes holidays can be a good thing for a people.

          1. There are Jews who actually research the ancestry of people who become famous for some positive reason, and then go on to “claim” that person, whether or not he chooses to be associated with them. I remember reading about Jews being pissed that Seth Myers did not acknowledge his Jewish paternity, as he had a Jewish father who was not in his life growing up and he was raised by a Protestant mother and practiced Christianity. This group also uncovered that Madeline Albright (who was raised a Catholic) had some Jewish ancestry. Ditto Diane Feinstein. Of course they were horrified when George Zimmerman hit the news, as many Jews have German surnames and they were quite relieved and hastened to let it be known that George had a German father and Peruvian mother. With Native Americans it’s different, as they have to split the loot and benefits with new members, so some tribes have been increasingly restricting whom they recognize as a tribal member. I doubt that there are that many whites who have any N.A. ancestry. Prior to 1968, many states forbade whites from marrying blacks and Indians, and it was also socially taboo for a white to marry or have black or Indian blood. It was only when the government started handing out benefits that people began claiming some distant Indian ancestry.

            1. Many tribes are matriarchal in determining whether or not off-spring are of the tribe, but adoptions from other tribes and from captured whites were not uncommon. I believe this is true of Jews, as well. If your mother is, so are you. And who knows for absolute certain sure who your father is?

  16. A DNA test might show that EW has an ancestor from Poland. The poles show here ahead in some states. The Checks show her to be down in the South. American Indians are a mixed group and not at all of the same breed or brew ha ha. Ask a Cherokee what they think of an Apachee. Or vice versa or a poet in motion. EW is a waste of time. It is wrong to call her Pocahontas. She is not an Earl Warren or a Queen Elizabeth. She is a dumb broad.

      1. Did you not see the God Emperor Trump float at the parade over in Italy? The world knows we all dodged a “pant suit bullet” as some writer put it.

        1. I liked the Queen Cleopatra entering Rome scene a little bit better

          That was Elizabeth Taylor, not Elizabeth Warren

          1. Yes, Jerry, but did Queen Cleopatra have a mighty Twitter sword like the God Emperor Trump? 😉

          1. Fishy, you don’t “get” much of anything do you?

            “It was a joke against Trump, not for him!!!” you declare.

            Says who? You? Is that your interpretation? Or is that the opinion that was spoon fed to you that you are simply regurgitating here?

            See, because most “art” is open to interpretation. Most artists create “art” in order to provoke the viewer, or perhaps start a larger conversation or discussion.

            But here you are telling me what I should think about a float? AS IF there is only one correct and fixed interpretation of this piece of “art”? Is that what you’re saying Fishy? How self-righteously authoritarian of you. 😉

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