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Attacking native ancestry is a no-win strategy

6/6/2012, 9:32 a.m.
Sounds like she has more...
Sounds like she has more than a drop of Cherokee blood in her body to me.

Attacking native ancestry is a no-win strategy

While on Beacon Hill, Scott Brown co-chaired the Legislature’s Metco caucus and supported minority-owned businesses. The Boston coordinator of his first U.S. Senate campaign was Robert Fortes Jr., whose family has deep ties in the black community. After the 2010 election, Brown met with black ministers.

Judging from that record, Brown does not appear to have any racial hang-ups. That makes his persistence in fueling the overblown story about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry look like demagoguery from an earlier political age. It is a tactic unworthy of a U.S. senator in the 21st century.

Two independent polls show that Massachusetts voters, by and large, do not care whether Warren has Native American ancestry or not. Nor do they appear to care whether she claimed that heritage helped her land jobs as a professor at Harvard Law School and elsewhere.

That finding is reassuring: There appears to be little white resentment of affirmative action, at least as applied to Native Americans.

Still, the Republican senator has continued to publicly pose questions to his Democratic challenger. Brown wants her to disclose what “benefits” she received by identifying herself as Native American in professional directories and to her employers at Harvard and, before that, the University of Pennsylvania.

Brown needs to explain his question. Does he not believe Harvard and past employers when they state her self-identified race had nothing to with her hiring? If he does believe them, what other benefits is he referring to?

Warren has not been enrolled in either the Cherokee or Delaware nations, in which she claims lineage, so she could not receive tribal services. Without a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Warren likewise was ineligible for federal benefits.

Brown makes a false assumption that minority status confers considerable benefits in the job market. If that were the case, more than one-half of one percent of law professors would be Native American. Rather than give minority applicants an advantage, affirmative action levels the hiring field by cancelling out the advantages of white job seekers stemming from employer biases.

Brown has also accused Warren of making “inaccurate” statements about her heritage. Actually, her claim of Native American ancestry has not been disproven; rather, it is undocumented.

Many people, including African Americans, claim a Cherokee ancestor, based on vague family history. Warren’s family specifically cites the Cherokee and Delaware tribes, which merged in 1867 and for decades lived together in northeastern Oklahoma.

That history noted, Warren probably cannot meet genealogical standards of proof. No ancestor of hers appears in the 1880 Cherokee census or the federal Dawes Roll compiled in the early 1900s.

An unverified marriage record from 1894 would make Warren 1/32d Cherokee. Some commentators scoff at such a small percentage defining someone’s race. If documented, it does in the Cherokee Nation, which sets no minimum blood quantum. The current chief is 1/32d Cherokee, and most enrolled Cherokee are more white than red.

Warren erred in asserting Native American ancestry in the directories without documentation. After all, she is a law professor who teaches students to research the law and the facts.

Her earnestness in continuing to claim that ancestry indicates she believes it to be true. But it could be nothing more than a family myth.

None of that justifies Brown trying to whip up racial resentment. In 1990, Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who was known to harbor racial animus, was near defeat by Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat who had been mayor of Charlotte. Helms prevailed after running a late TV ad showing white hands crumpling a piece of paper as the narrator says: “You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority.”

Brown’s harping on supposed benefits Warren received from claiming Native American ancestry is the verbal equivalent of the infamous “white hands” ad. Scott Brown is no Jesse Helms, so he should stop campaigning like him.