"I still have a picture on my mantel and it is a picture my mother had before that -- a picture of my grandfather. And my Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times and remarked that he -- her father, my papaw -- had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do ... Being Native American has been part of my story, I guess, since the day I was born."
--Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, trying to explain why she identified herself as a "minority" law professor in the 1980s and 1990s.
It happens in a lot of American families. My maternal great-grandfather was born on a Maine island in the 1880s, in the days when Penobscot Indians still rode birch-bark canoes from their inland reservation to the coast for their annual clambake. I always had the definite idea that he had Indian blood himself -- maybe Penobscot, maybe Abenaki, maybe another New England tribe. In the photographs I have of him, he certainly looks the part, with a profile suited for an Indian Head penny.
My great-grandfather left an autobiography behind, though (that's how I know about the canoes and the clambake), and I went back to it recently and couldn't find even a hint of an Indian connection: just a typical old New England genealogy, mostly English families with some Irish woven in. This would have been immensely disappointing to my 10-year-old self, since I can remember telling friends in American history class, with an air of authority, that I was almost certainly one sixteenth Native American, or at the very least one thirty-second.
It seems that Elizabeth Warren may turn out to be similarly disappointed, after the New England Genealogical Society acknowledged last week that there's no firm evidence of her great-great-grandmother being Cherokee.
That supposed ancestral tie was what inspired the professor-turned-Senate candidate to identify as an ethnic minority in law school directories early in her career. More important, it was what inspired The Harvard Crimson to refer to Warren as Harvard Law School's "one tenured minority woman" and The Fordham Law Review to cite her as Harvard Law's "first woman of color" during the mid-1990s debates over faculty diversity.
Now that same claim -- and her clumsy, "my grandfather had high cheekbones" attempts to defend it -- has become perhaps the biggest obstacle in her quest to reclaim Ted Kennedy's Senate seat for liberalism.
The whole story has a tragicomic, Nathaniel Hawthorne meets "Curb Your Enthusiasm" feel. It's easy to imagine Warren originally checking a box more on a whim than out of any deep determination to self-identify as Cherokee. (She didn't use the minority-applicant program when applying to Rutgers, where she attended law school,ÃƒÃ‚ and she identified as "white" during an early teaching job at the University of Texas.)
Then it's easy to imagine her embarrassment when the diversity wars of the 1990s made that whimsical choice something from which she couldn't dissociate herself without intense public awkwardness. Those wars faded, she no longer listed herself as a Native American, she thought the whole thing was behind her...until she went into politics, where no secret stays buried.
The appropriate response to such a tale is probably sympathy rather than scorn. What does deserve scorn, though, is the academic culture in which an extremely distant connection to a Cherokee ancestor ends up being touted by a law school as proof of its commitment to diversity.
A diverse faculty and campus can be a laudable goal. But the point is to build academic communities that actually contain a wide variety of experiences and perspectives, not to wax self-congratulatory because you've met a set of ethnic quotas. The story of Elizabeth Warren, "woman of color," represents a reductio ad absurdum of the latter tendency, which has been all too prevalent in elite universities -- giving us affirmative-action programs that benefit West Indian immigrants more than the descendants of slaves, and faculties that include a wider range of skin tones than of political and religious views.
The irony is that Warren herself probably did make Harvard more diverse, since she grew up the daughter of a janitor in Oklahoma -- not a typical background, to put it mildly, for Ivy League students and faculty today. But under the academy's cramped definitions, it was her grandfather's Cherokee cheekbones, not her blue-collar roots, that led to her citation as a supposed trailblazer.
That isn't a serious approach to academic diversity, and in an emerging majority-minority America (already visible in the latest Census birth statistics) where almost everyone will be 1/8 something-or-other, it will be an increasingly untenable one as well.
For many colleges and universities, then, this contretemps represents a timely gift: a chance to think anew about these issues, before the pursuit of a cosmetic diversity leaves them looking as ridiculous as poor Elizabeth Warren does today.