On Saturday, Elizabeth Warren will formally introduce herself to thousands of delegates and onlookers at the state Democratic convention in Springfield. No doubt she’ll use her convention speech to tout her hardscrabble upbringing, her labors on behalf of the middle class, and her conviction that consumers need an advocate against predatory lenders. But the speech should also address the issue that’s been so prevalent in the recent news coverage of the campaign, and is a source of some consternation even among Warren’s supporters: how she came to be identified as Native American in a national legal directory, Harvard press releases, and federal diversity reports.
Throughout the month-long saga, Warren has offered discrete answers to most of the questions: Her Native American ancestry was part of her family lore, though she does not consider herself fully Native American. Nonetheless, she listed it on a law-school professional directory because she was proud of her heritage and hoped to meet others who had some Native American background. But she says she never sought any special advantages or status, even though Harvard, in press releases and in its official diversity report, listed a Native American woman among its law-school faculty. Warren says she hadn’t seen those reports.
One unanswered question that emerged last week was whether she told Harvard she had Native American roots, and she acknowledged Wednesday night that she did. There would be nothing untoward about someone who genuinely believes herself to have Native American ancestry to describe herself as such; the error would be if Warren, who clearly identifies herself as white in other aspects of her life, sought to be hired by Harvard or any other institution as a diversity candidate. So far, there is no evidence that her alleged Native American roots were a factor in her being chosen for any job.
Warren has answered questions in a piecemeal fashion, as bits of information emerged, but voters seem more concerned about the underlying issues. Why does this family lore matter to her? In the diversity-conscious ’90s, did she view it as a professional advantage? Does she understand why people might be offended by the notion of a white professor asserting a minority identity? And, given that she doesn’t consider herself a full Native American, how would having even a little bit of such ancestry change her world view?
This controversy shouldn’t be the dominant issue of the campaign — and voters, in polls, say it’s not, despite the ongoing efforts of Senator Scott Brown’s campaign to make it so. But Warren can’t wish it away, either. Being true to one’s own background, and being honest about it, is a familiar issue in Massachusetts politics, from the Irish-Yankee wars of the early and mid-20th century to today’s more complicated mosaic. If having a small amount of native blood is important enough for Warren to declare it in a legal directory, it must mean something to her.
Explaining just what it does mean to her is part of the Elizabeth Warren story — the same one she’s basing her candidacy on. Warren needs to tell that story in full detail, and be willing to talk about it confidently, whether with voters or the media, before she can truly put this episode behind her.