The U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts is providing America with a teachable moment about affirmative action. Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown’s campaign has accused Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren of promoting her academic career by unfairly claiming American Indian ethnicity based on a remote 19th-century family link. After some delay, the Warren campaign confirmed that she listed herself as a Native American while at Harvard University. Faculty directories published by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) also list Mrs. Warren as a minority faculty member at her previous academic posts. Universities where she worked all claim affirmative action played no role in her hiring, but the public can be justly skeptical. Higher education has long been the most committed bastion for the defense of race-based hiring preferences.
The debate over whether or how Mrs. Warren benefited from affirmative action highlights the contradictions of multiculturalism. Affirmative action forces people into racial and ethnic boxes, and some are more rewarding than others. Self-interest prompts people to find ways to associate themselves with protected classes, no matter how tenuous the connection may be. This is a zero-sum game where scarce academic posts are concerned. If a search committee is looking to increase “faculty diversity,” whites need not apply. While affirmative action pretends to be a remedy for victims of discrimination, the primary victims in this scenario are the applicants who might have gotten jobs based on merit had imposters or exaggerators such as Mrs. Warren not shown up.
Even acknowledging a trace blood link to the Cherokee people means little if Mrs. Warren did not have any personal ties to the tribe, which she apparently did not. These might include knowing the Cherokee language, living in or among acknowledged members of the tribe or engaging in traditional rites or ceremonies that are meaningful in Cherokee culture. Such actions constitute meaningful connections to a people and rightly establish identity. If every American claimed one-thirty-second of his or her ancestry as official racial identity, the number of “minorities” would skyrocket. Worse, basing an ethnic claim only on a blood tie is very dangerous because it follows the same sinister logic that has been used by every racial supremacist, promoter of miscegenation laws or advocate of segregation.
Mrs. Warren says she is proud of her Cherokee heritage, and rightly so if she truly does care. Ethnic identity is an important source of pride, fellowship and dignity. It is one of the ingredients in the great American melting pot. Ideally, a person’s heritage should not be a point of public contention. Yet affirmative action forces such issues into the political realm. It transforms the peoples’ diverse cultural affiliations into hard categories that the government uses to sort out winners and losers. For conservatives, the Warren affair simply reinforces the idea that affirmative action is illegitimate, unjust and discriminatory. Liberals have a harder task, namely confronting the suggestion that one of their prominent leaders personally benefited by exploiting a system designed to achieve social justice.
James S. Robbins is a senior editorial writer at The Washington Times and author of the forthcoming book, “Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity” (Encounter, 2012).