As far as some media outlets and reporters were concerned, Senator Elizabeth Warren scored a major win against her critics Monday. "A DNA analysis done on Sen. Elizabeth Warren provides strong evidence she has Native American heritage, a claim her critics have long mocked," the AP tweeted. "BREAKING: Elizabeth Warren releases her DNA test: Yes, she is Native American," reported the Daily Beast. "President Trump is sure to stop mocking Senator Warren about her ancestry now that she has provided definitive proof," a New York Times reporter snarked.
According to the actual Boston Globe piece, a genealogist did indeed find "strong evidence" that Warren has Native-American in her family tree "dating back 6 to 10 generations." That would make Warren somewhere between 1.5% Native-American and .097% Native-American, or 1/64th to 1/1024th. And Elizabeth Warren chose to release this DNA test.
Boy, we sure are owned.
Let's be clear; Warren did not claim to have a mere drop of Native-American blood, she claimed that her parents were forced to elope because of how darn Native-American her family was. "She was a beautiful girl who played the piano. And he was head over heels in love with her and wanted to marry her. And his family was bitterly opposed to that because she was part Native American," she told Fox News Sunday as late as this year.
For nearly a decade, Warren listed herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools desk book. The Globe piece notes she was "listed as a Native American in federal forms filed by the law schools at Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania where she worked." When Harvard was criticized for its lack of diversity, it championed Warren's minority status. At first Warren denied that she told the schools she was Native-American before changing her story and admitting "at some point after I was hired by them, I also provided that information to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard."
In 1984 Warren contributed to the "Pow Wow Chow" cookbook with recipes for crab salad and crab omelets, signing the contribution "Elizabeth Warren–Cherokee" (the recipes were actually plagiarized from a French chef). Throughout all this, the only evidence Warren pointed to was the "family lore" and the fact that she had high cheekbones.
After all that, it turns out that Warren has a Native-American ancestor—and not even necessarily Cherokee—who, extrapolating based on her supposedly part-Indian fifth-generation ancestor born in 1794, was born sometime between the Gunpowder Plot and the Stamp Act. Who honestly thinks that Warren comes out looking good in this?
The answer, evidently, is reporters. The framing from the Warren campaign and uncritically repeated by the media is that this is a win for the likely Democratic presidential candidate because Donald Trump stated or strongly implied that Warren was 0% Native-American and even offered $1 million if a DNA test showed she was "an Indian." Trump himself then fueled this narrative by immediately denying he made the offer.
I will concede—I hope you're sitting down here—that Trump might have drastically overstated his case and made a promise he had no intention of keeping.
But Trump was a latecomer to a debate that has fueled since Warren first ran for Senate, and intelligent conservative criticisms have never ruled out that she might have a minuscule amount of aboriginal DNA. Even the average white American has about .18% Native ancestry, within the range of Warren's results. The central complaint was that her ancestry was unproven and tenuous and that she still used it in a professional academic capacity. I do think some conservative commentators go too far in claiming that Warren benefitted as an affirmative action hire, but what's undeniable is that when activists pushed Harvard to add more minorities to their staff, they pointed to a white woman and called her their "first woman of color."
If a Republican presidential contender—let's say Mitt Romney—claimed that his parents eloped because of his Native-American mom, submitted recipes to a "Pow Wow" cookbook, told his employers he was Native-American, and then a DNA test showed at latest he had an indigenous ancestor when Massachusetts was still a colony, would the media takeaway be that his critics overstated things? Or would it be that he was at worst a liar and at best made an ass of himself?
I'll conclude by noting that this is an issue on which I can speak with some perspective. I grew up being told of a black ancestor on my mother's side of the family. I never repeated that fact publicly, partly out of caution; I never met or actually saw any pictures of the man and Dominican notions of race are complex to say the least. But mostly it was because I realized it had no bearing on my actual life. We no longer live in an America where "one drop" could consign me to second-class citizenship.
As it happens, my mother did one of those 23 and Me's a year ago and the "family lore" was vindicated. She's a quarter African, a little over a tenth Indian, and the rest Spanish, consistent with the story of a black grandfather. I guess extrapolating from that, I'm an eighth black and 6% Indian. But I could have just as easily found myself in Warren's position, identifying with slim or nonexistent heritage based on half-remembered anecdotes and family jokes about our hair. In a way, I actually do identify with her plight.
But this is also my not-so-subtle way of self-righteously bragging that I'm significantly more indigenous by blood than Elizabeth Warren and I would never, ever dream of publicly identifying that way. I am roughly 12 times as "black" as Warren is indigenous and I would not tell my employers I am black or add my list to a registry of black journalists. I'm obviously white (albeit a white Hispanic), society grants me all the advantages of being white, and it'd be pretty darn rich to strut around crowing about the slivers of my heritage that will never touch my life in the slightest but consign others to systematic racism. This is my first time even bringing it up; I doubt I ever will again.
As Warren ramps up her presidential run, she's clearly banking on the fact that voters will see it her way, that her charitably-one-percent of Native ancestry justifies the way she's presented herself in her professional life. I suspect more voters will probably see the issue the way I do.