Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee?

The kerfuffle over Professor Elizabeth Warren's heritage is best understood through the prism of governmental demands for diversity. While the biggest issue for her campaign (and for voters) is whether or not she lied about past claims, outsiders to academia are, I think, mistaking the margin at which Warren claiming minority status would have distorted the system in her favor.

Why do I know something about this? I'm an academic, for one. But also: I'm married to a woman with ancestry very similar to Warren's. Mrs. Global Review is 1/32nd Algonquin, according to family history. Warren claims to have two separate great-great-great-grand-Indians, which would make her 1/16th Native American.

Top schools care very little about race. They are brutally meritorious, and count publications the way baseball GM's count home runs. Nobody in baseball says, "hmm, we could really use a Japanese pitcher to connect with Asian fans". But having signed an Asian due to his pitching skills, they'll freely use his background as an advertising tool. Why not?

It's similar with academic departments. In my wife's case, she could help her own school out by listing herself as Native American. How? Well, certain National Science Foundation training grants are available only to programs that have a certain percentage of minority students (and no, Jews and Asians don't count, despite historical and current discrimination against them in academia). My wife's school missed the cutoff - she could have curried favor with her bosses and possibly made more money available for herself and her colleagues by listing herself as Native American.

An important distinction to make between my wife's case and Warren's is their place in the system. As a nearly blank slate, just beginning grad school, schools would have definitely taken my wife's declared race into account. This is in accordance with Federal policy; why else would the government make NSF training grants contingent on minority inclusion? But at Warren's level, accomplishments matter much more.

For Warren, if Harvard Law favored her at all, it would more likely be for her sex (she was hired as one of 11 women on a faculty of 71) than her race. My wife, however, did not enjoy this benefit: her field is already 50/50, so she does not have to suffer the stigma of affirmative action, and can take her place as an equal of the men and women in her program.

The real question is: did Warren lie about using her Cherokee background to help her employers look good? If she did, she's guilty of rank hypocrisy. As a leftist who wants government to help those less favored by circumstance, lying about her past claims would essentially show that she feels guilty about abusing the very system she wants to enshrine.

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