The Real Villain in the Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’ Saga Is Higher Education

It was only a matter of time before the "2018" writers room decided to throw a race-science plot-line into the mix.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) — aka "Pocahontas (bad version)" — is running for president in 2020, so she has decided to make headlines this week by releasing the results of a DNA analysis into her heritage, which found "strong evidence" that Warren is somewhere between 0.09 percent and 1.56 percent Native American. Congrats!

To put those numbers into context, the average European American is 0.18 percent Native American, according to a study by the DNA analysis firm 23andMe.

Donald Trump responded, predictably, by calling her Pocahontas again. Many others have been using the social networking website Twitter to share their opinions on the subject. The media, also predictably, declared victory on Warren’s behalf, suggesting she had definitively earned the right to call herself a Native American.

But if everyone would just stop yelling and/or typing for a second—a fantasy, I know—perhaps most of us could agree on something. The real shameful actors at the center of this controversy are the institutions of higher education, specifically the so-called "elite" universities (Penn and Harvard) that listed Warren as a Native American faculty member throughout her career as a law professor.

Previous reporting from the Boston Globe suggests we should give Warren the benefit of the doubt — that the Penn and Harvard law schools did not view her as a minority candidate, and didn’t hire her as part of an affirmative action campaign based on her claimed Native American heritage.

Fair enough. Maybe Warren didn’t try exploit her "heritage" to get hired. Maybe she didn’t take a job away from an otherwise qualified minority candidate, even though Penn administrators had to fill out a document specifically explaining their decision to hire Warren, a white candidate, instead of an actual person of color.

Either way, though, the law schools still listed her as a minority faculty member. In 1997, an article in the Fordham Law Review described Warren as Harvard Law School’s "first woman of color." Why? Because, as the Globe reports, "Ivy League universities, like the ones where Warren taught, were under great pressure to show they had diverse staffs."

This is the real scandal: Elite institutions under such pressure to adhere to a certain political ideology — political correctness, multiculturalism, identity politics, etc. — that they were willing to cook the books, and dishonestly count a white professor as a minority to appear more diverse. It’s hard to believe Warren’s case was an exception, rather than the rule at the time.

This was all taking place in the late 1980s and 1990s. These days, Elizabeth Warren and the law schools that employed her would be universally condemned for pulling this stunt. Just look at the Cherokee Nation’s statement attacking Warren’s DNA results as "useless," and accusing the senator of "undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage." Just wait until this comes in a Democratic primary debate. Warren wouldn't be addressing the issue this early if she didn't view it as a liability.

The times have changed. Elite universities are as racially diverse as they’ve ever been. They don’t have to fake it anymore. However, their fanatical commitment to identity politics and diversity — which they choose to define almost exclusively in terms of race, as opposed to other factors such as socio-economic status or ideology — is producing some "problematic" results.

Warren made her DNA announcement, fittingly, on the same day a U.S. District Court judge heard opening arguments from a group representing Asian-American students suing Harvard for discriminatory admissions policies. The lawsuit alleges that Harvard took active measures to limit admission offers to qualified Asian-American students, who often had the highest grades and test scores, in order to boost representation of other minorities.

Affirmative action, a central tenet of elite university dogma, is under attack, and not just from the political right. A growing body of research has shown that race-based admissions policies often end up harming the minority students they are intended to help, and tend to favor minority students from well-off backgrounds. The result of such policies, in the words of Georgetown University Law Professor Sheryll Cashin, is to "create optical blackness but little socioeconomic diversity."

(NB: Like most of our elite institutions and corporate overlords, our top universities have not allowed their passion for inclusivity and social justice to dissuade them from accepting mountains of cash from some of the most oppressive regimes on the planet.)

A clever populist politician on the left might be able to exploit this tension, which happens to mirror the growing tension within the Democratic Party between an elite liberalism obsessed with identity politics (and beloved by corporations), and a Bernie Sanders faction that portrays itself as anti-elite and favoring a more class-based approach. Interestingly, Warren currently occupies a sort of middle ground in this rivalry. It remains to be seen where Democratic frontrunner Michael Avenatti stands on the issue.