In January 2010, Massachusetts voters fired “the Scott heard round the world.” A clever phrase two years ago, it still expresses the significance of Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley in the state’s special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Martha Coakley kept reminding voters whose seat she wanted to fill. Scott Brown replied, “It’s not Ted Kennedy’s seat. It’s the people’s seat.”
Brown, for his part, said that he would be the forty-first vote against the Democrats’ health care bill, suspended in Congress over uncertainty about how it might pass in the Senate. That’s the significance of Brown’s election. Massachusetts voters proclaimed, in part, “We don’t want the health care bill. We can make a difference here. We can block this bad bill.” Brown’s election did not keep Obama, Pelosi, and Reid from passing the bill anyway, but it prefigured the Democrats’ downfall in congressional elections ten months later, when voters punished the Democrats for their arrogance.
Leading Massachusetts Democrats decided a while ago that Elizabeth Warren would be their candidate to run against Brown in 2012. They must have felt a fair degree of confidence they would get the seat back. Warren is a better candidate than Coakley, with a record, a reputation, and a resume the Democrats like. She’s energetic and she’s not wishy washy about her positions. Obama nominated her for the new consumer finance regulatory commission, and even though she didn’t get the post, the nomination gave her credibility in national politics. Her resume, however, turned out to be something of a millstone.
For nearly a month now, the newspapers and public forums in Massachusetts have been atwitter with talk of Elizabeth Warren’s resume. To be more precise, she claimed to be part Native American when she applied to teach at Harvard University’s Law School. The Boston Herald decided to check the claim out, and discovered she couldn’t prove it. The Warren campaign responded in two parts. The candidate, who is from Oklahoma, is one thirty-second Cherokee Indian, and the source of that information is family lore.
In a modern political campaign, family lore is not good enough. In an environment where Barack Obama has to produce his Hawaiian birth certificate to prove he’s eligible to live in the White House, something your parents told you about your Native American heritage is not going to cut it. Elizabeth Warren is suddenly on the ropes, and Scott Brown hasn’t lifted a glove.
Let’s take another look at this business. One thirty-second means you have to go back five generations to find one Native American in Elizabeth Warren’s blood line. How many people can produce documentary proof about the parentage of a great-great-great-grandparent? To find adequate proof, you’d actually have to go back six generations. If Elizabeth Warren did have a Cherokee ancestor in Oklahoma, the individual probably arrived there via Andrew Jackson’s atrocity of deportation, the Trail of Tears.
People don’t feel uncomfortable about Elizabeth Warren because she can’t prove she’s part Native American. If your parents tell you that you have a Cherokee ancestor, why would you disbelieve it? Why wouldn’t you be proud of that interesting bit of family history, preserved for so many generations? People feel uncomfortable about the situation because they feel she gamed the affirmative action system. She made a claim that she knew would help her get a job.
I’m not sure what’s so bad about that. When I see a check box that asks whether I’m a veteran, I’m happy to check yes and hope that I might receive some sort of preference that way. Why shouldn’t the same go for your heritage? People will say that Warren suggested she’s half Native American, or at least one quarter. One thirty-second isn’t high enough. What would be high enough? One sixteenth? One eighth? The affirmative action rules don’t tell us how much minority blood is enough.
So now the absurdity of affirmative action quotas comes out, and Elizabeth Warren gets the blame for it. She knew that Harvard Law School would be a sucker for diversity on their faculty. The hiring committee thinks, we can get a woman on our faculty, and she’s part Native American! To the Harvard blue bloods, without the box she’s just a hick from Oklahoma who happens to have a law degree: practically a barefoot lawyer. With the box, she’s a gold mine! If you can secure a teaching post at Harvard by checking the box next to Native American, wouldn’t you do it? If your parents told you about your Cherokee ancestor from before the Civil War, why would you leave the box blank?
But why would a law school make a hiring decision based on something like that? It’s just as foolish as rejecting her because she’s from Oklahoma. The hiring committee took other elements of Warren’s record into account, of course, but you’re left to ask: would Harvard have hired her if the box next to Native American were blank? You could shrug your shoulders and say, “Who cares?,” but everyone knows that Warren’s an attractive candidate because she taught at Harvard. Take that away, and who do you have? Not someone who can go up against Scott Brown.
Affirmative action quotas radiate unfairness in every direction. The Democrats have defended them at every turn, and now those quotas have bitten one of their own. We may still get to hear Brown and Warren talk about the policies they favor for their state and for their country. Voters may eventually consider what kind of leaders they would be over the next six years. Meantime, Warren stews in her party’s affirmative action juices, unable to escape the embarrassment of having checked that box.
Checking the Native American box doesn’t make you more qualified to teach at Harvard, but it does give a sense of satisfaction to the people who put the box there in the first place. Harvard’s a symbol of white European culture: it traces its roots far back to the first settlers on New England’s shore. If hiring someone who checks the box makes you feel even a little less guilty about the injustice and suffering that our white ancestors dealt out to Native Americans, isn’t that a good exchange? Isn’t that cheap expiation? Now Elizabeth Warren, one thirty-second Cherokee and rightly proud of it, has to wonder whether that little box did her in.