In a supposedly more enlightened, if not "post-racial," society one would think that television images of whites doing "war whoops" and "tomahawk chops," coming across your screen were buried and long gone with its troubled era of Native American relations in this country.
When Scott Brown’s campaign mocked Elizabeth Warren's purported Cherokee heritage, I recalled American novelist William Faulkner. He wrote in his 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."
The racial conflagration now engulfing Massachusetts senate race has shifted focus from the issues to shining light on how white privilege—Scott's and Warren’s—exploit Native American voters.
The Brown campaign enjoys using the "race card" to both define and demean Warren. Brown's first television advertisement attacked Warren's undocumented claims of being Native American.
In a 30-second ad called “Who Knows?” it features TV reporters talking about Warren identifying as Native American. The ad ends with one reporter stating Warren’s assertion is “something genealogists said they have zero evidence of.”
The campaign has successfully latched on to Warren's claim of Native American roots as a rallying tool to deflect attention away from pressing issues facing Massachusetts residents, but also to attack, in a more insidious way, the hotly contested issue of affirmative action.
Coming out of the gate in their first televised senate debate Brown, once again, pounced on Warren's lineage when he gestured toward her while facing the camera stating, “Elizabeth Warren said she was a Native American, a person of color." "As you can see, she's not."
Brown obviously associates the way one looks to race and ethnicity. Warren, blond and blue-eyed, is not phenotypically our Hollywood image of Native American. For Brown to imply that all Native Americans ought to look a certain way is reminiscent of the racial stereotyping that non-Caucasian and mixed race people continually confront.
In dismissing Warren as a "person of color” gives Brown fuel to query what he perceives as Warren's unfair advantage in employment, by accusing her of "participating in Harvard's diversity sham by allowing the school to list her a minority."
Warren, however, is no innocent bystander or victim in this evolving racial discourse shaping the senate bid.
What was Warren’s purpose in announcing she's 1/32nd Cherokee? Did Warren think it would give her more of an advantage with minority votes?
While it is true that Warren does not hold possession of a "Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood" (C.D.I.B., or "white card") I.D or the Cherokee Nation tribal citizenship card ("blue card"), her lack of documentation verifying Native American heritage is part and parcel of family folklore shrouded in secrecy and shame. Before anti- miscegenation laws were constitutionally banned in 1967, families that were interracial were highly discreet in telling family truths in hopes of not drawing attention.
How and when Warren used her purported Native American status raises questions, especially since Warren attests she didn’t use it to advance her career.
According to the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) desk book, a directory of law professors, Warren listed herself as a minority for nearly a decade from 1986 through 1995—the same year she left the Republican party to join the Democratic party, and also the same year she was hired at Harvard.
“I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group something that might happen with people who are like I am. Nothing like that ever happened, that was clearly not the use for it and so I stopped checking it off,” Warren told reporters in Braintree, Massachusetts
If Warren's sole objective in listing herself as a minority in the AALS was to network with people like herself skeptics query why Warren never attended Native American functions at Harvard and other academic institutions she was employed at or made attempts reaching out to Native American faculty across the country.
In 1998, the year that Harvard Law School finally tenured its first African American female, Lani Guiner, the Harvard Crimson wrote that “Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women...Elizabeth Warren is Native American.”
Warren has been asked by several Native American groups, like the Native American delegates to the Democratic National Convention, which includes the great-grandson of the legendary Native American warrior Geronimo, to explain her ancestry claims, but she refused.
According to Cornell Law professor William A Jacobson, Warren’s great-great-great grandfather assisted the U.S. government in the forced relocation of Cherokees known as the Trail of Tears.
Warren’s now silence on the controversy makes you ponder that her disclosure of her Native American ancestry didn’t render the intended outcome.
Her avoidance in not addressing the controversy head-on feeds into Brown’s race-baiting diversion tactics.
And, sadly, both are using their white skin privilege exploiting Native American voters.