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yvonne abraham

Debasing the debate

It’s easy to see why Senator Scott Brown and his campaign love the controversy over opponent Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Native American heritage — obvious why his staffers are burning up phone lines in an attempt to keep it going and going and going.

It is a ludicrous side-issue — just the sort of thing, sad to say, that modern campaigns feast on. For Brown, it is a gift that just keeps giving.

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And make no mistake; Warren gave it to him. A learned lawyer and formidable candidate, she has managed to make herself look pretty darned silly. She could have ended the contretemps at the outset by simply saying, “Yes, I have a distant Cherokee ancestor, and I’m proud of it.’’ Instead, she said Harvard, where she teaches, had called her a Native American without her knowledge. Then it emerged that Warren had identified herself as a minority in a legal directory — but only from 1986 to 1995, before she went to Harvard. A genealogist turned up possible evidence that Warren is 1/32 Cherokee, though others have not backed that up.

Pushed to explain herself, she spoke of family “lore’’ about her ancestry and her grandfather’s high cheekbones. Wednesday, in Brighton, she repeated the no-longer-credible claim that she doesn’t know how Harvard came to list her as Native American.

Her response has been clumsy and baffling. But Brown’s reach for the dog-whistle politics of race has been something else — reprehensible.

If not for Warren’s awful run, Brown might be having a rough go lately. Recently released tax returns showed that, like Warren, he’s quite wealthy, despite his pick-up truck shtick. On Tuesday, the senator who has been strenuously touting his bipartisanship voted with Republicans in blocking a Democratic proposal to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling. Democrats wanted to defray the cost of the measure by ending a tax break to oil companies; the GOP chose, with predictable hard-headedness, to target preventive health care instead. So now we see more clearly which side he’s on.

Coincidentally, Tuesday was also the day Brown leapt into the fray over Warren’s heritage. For days, as aides and surrogates fanned the story in a behind-the-scenes frenzy, he had been acting like an innocent but curious bystander. But just after Tuesday’s vote, he issued a forceful statement calling on Warren to release her personnel files from Harvard and elsewhere.

Fair enough, up to a point. Warren has not been entirely forthcoming or consistent. But here’s where the Brown campaign’s focus on Warren’s heritage veers from politics-as-usual into more sinister territory. What they’re doing isn’t merely casting doubts on Warren’s credibility: They’re also capitalizing on some voters’ resentment of minorities in the workplace, undercutting Warren’s academic qualifications by implying that she gained an unfair advantage because she was classified as a minority.

“The question is whether and how she used a minority status to gain or not gain access to employment,’’ Brown said last week.

Never mind that Warren is widely acknowledged to be at the top of her field on matters of bankruptcy and personal finance, has written bestselling books, is an enormously popular teacher, and established the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Or that colleges that hired her said they didn’t consider her heritage.

The wail of the dog-whistle rises above all of this. But you have to wonder what the Brown campaign gains here. Sure, some voters — particularly white men — feel resentful of the advantages they perceive minorities have in the workplace. But they were in Brown’s corner anyway. A poll taken this week, amidst the brouhaha, showed it had had just about no effect; the candidates were running even.

But it’s having an impact, all right. It’s lowering us all.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com .
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