Harvard Law School was stretching its credibility when it boasted, in a 1996 press release, that Professor Elizabeth Warren was a Native American; she has, according to family lore and long-ago marital records, some Native American ancestry, but she wasn’t a tribe member and, by her own account, didn’t hold herself out as a Native American. Her ancestry may have been a small point of diversity on a largely white-male faculty, but it was a disservice to students to suggest she was offering the perspective of a Native American.
Now, in the midst of a Senate campaign, the question facing Warren is whether she played any role in Harvard’s decision to tout her as Native American; on Friday, when the story first came to light in the Boston Herald, she said she did not know of the press release, and had not claimed that she was a minority for hiring purposes. If so, it seems likely that Warren, like many other people with some degree of mixed background, was simply enmeshed in an academic culture that values diversity but lacks any standards for who should be counted as a minority.
The story didn’t quite end there. On Monday, when the Globe and other outlets reported that Warren had been listed as a minority professor in the American Association of Law Schools desk book for eight years, her campaign changed its tune slightly: “The simple fact is Elizabeth is proud of her heritage,” her spokeswoman said in a prepared statement.
There is nothing wrong with Warren identifying her ancestry on a form sent out by the law-school association, but there would be if she were using that listing to promote herself as a minority job candidate. No one with only distant ancestry should claim minority status for hiring purposes without identifying as a minority in everyday life.
This is, admittedly, a difficult and even painful question, because all professors bring to their work the totality of their life experiences. Warren’s family accounts of Native American ancestry may well influence her legal views. But that only makes her like most white professors, whose backgrounds — which may include immigrant journeys, hardscrabble childhoods, and traumatic blows — inform their perspectives. However, a person who promotes himself or herself as a member of a minority group for hiring purposes shouldn’t be referring to a long-ago ancestor or two: They should consider it their dominant ethnic group.
Academia values diversity but lacks any standards for who should be counted as a minority.
Charles Fried, the conservative law professor who recommended Warren for the Harvard faculty, said her Native American ancestry never came up. At the University of Texas, where Warren taught between 1981 and 1987, records list her as white, indicating there was no attempt by her or the university to claim minority status.
Unless evidence emerges to suggest otherwise, Warren doesn’t need to explain herself any further. There’s nothing untoward about citing one’s actual ancestry in a professional directory. Warren, like everyone else, has a right to her own background. It’s only in the freighted world of academic diversity that these questions become more complicated. As of now, the only apologizing should be done by Harvard Law School.