With the national media’s attention riveted by a series of racism and sexism scandals tearing through the whole Democratic party establishment in Virginia, Elizabeth Warren probably thought this was a good time to get her own racial politics scandal behind her. So on Tuesday, Warren told the Washington Post that, as the Post put it, “she was sorry that she identified herself as a Native American for almost two decades.”
Warren, asked in a brief interview Tuesday if she’d intended the apology to include labeling herself as Native American when at the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard University, replied “yes.” She gave the same response when asked if it included labeling herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools directory.
What began in 2012 with Warren righteously claiming that she knew her Native American heritage from her family’s stories and her high cheekbones, and progressed last October to her claim that a DNA test vindicated her, is now a blanket apology for ever making the claim.
You don’t see a political narrative collapse like this every day. Politics is a field awash in fabulism, and we’re used to seeing politicians cling to flattering personal narratives no matter what. So why did Warren abandon hers?
The answer is contained in the wording of her apology.
“I can’t go back,” Warren said in an interview with the Washington Post. “But I am sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted.”
This is what happens when modern feel-good identity politics posturing comes up against an ethnic identification that has a specific legal identity.
In claiming that she was Native American, Warren had been playing by the rules of academia, in which ethnicity (and a great deal else) is subjectively self-identified and you can more or less claim to be whatever you want. Those standards usually apply in the way racial and ethnic identification is treated in the culture. Rachel Dolezal—excuse me, Nkechi Amare Diallo—can claim she’s black and there’s no legal structure that can dictate otherwise. Not unless everyone wants to return to the “one drop rule.” (Though some racial set-asides have been pushing us in that direction.)
But Native American status does not work according to those rules, because it’s not merely an ethnic identification but a special legal status that dates back before the founding of the United States of America.
Native American tribes are not immigrant groups. Legally, native tribes have the recognized status of sovereign nations which were incorporated within the United States by treaty as they were surrounded, integrated, and sometimes defeated in war by the expansion of American settlements. This special status has historically conferred certain legal disadvantages—members of Native American tribes were not covered by birthright citizenship and were not necessarily citizens of the United States until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924—as well as certain legal advantages, such as exemption from some taxes and from regulations on tobacco and gambling.
Because of that special legal status, Native American tribes are recognized by state and federal governments and have carefully maintained membership rolls. You can’t just say, “I have high cheekbones,” or refer to stories your grandparents told you, or take a DNA test.
Ultimately, this defined legal status is what scuppered Warren. The actual, recognized Native American tribes were mobilized to defend their prerogatives against pretenders—which is something they frequently do—and specifically to fight back against the idea that a DNA test showing trace native American ancestry is enough to claim Native American status. That’s why Warren’s apology was offered first to Bill John Baker, the chief of the officially recognized Cherokee Nation. Given the wide prevalence of Native American ancestry at trace levels similar to Warren’s, if her claim had been accepted it could open up the floodgates and water down the claims of the officially designated tribes. (Next up: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proclaiming that “Latino people are descendants of native people.”)
There’s a wider lesson here that ties in to the unfolding disaster in Virginia politics. Democrats have seized the high ground against bigotry by using accusations of racism and sexism as partisan weapons—only to find those weapons turned back on themselves. There is often a kind of tokenism behind this, in which politicians such as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam use insinuations about racism against their opponents, but turn out not to have been so fastidious about racially offensive behavior in their own pasts. Warren, too, used her claims of Native American heritage for professional advancement, while having no connection with actual Native American tribal communities.
Eventually, this collided with the fact that Native American tribes have a real legal and constitutional history. You would think a Harvard Law professor might know that—unless, of course, she was never all that interested in Native American heritage in the first place.