Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren finds herself in a bit of a quandary. In the mid-90s there was a minor kerfuffle over the lack of diversity on Harvard Law's teaching staff. At the time, 54 of Harvard Law's 71 professors were white males. There was not a single minority female on staff. Or so they thought.
“Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [Law School spokesman] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American,” the Harvard Crimson wrote in 1996.
Now that Elizabeth Warren's running for Senate, thus far she's been unable to provide any documentation confirming that despite her decidedly white complexion she is, in fact, a Native American. "Aides said the tales of Warren’s Cherokee and Delaware tribe ancestors have been passed down through family lore," the Boston Herald reports today.
If Warren is telling the truth, I can sympathize. Beyond your surname, "family lore" is often all the proof that many people have regarding their ethnic claims. The rub is that in particular pockets of society -- higher education being the most obvious example -- jobs, reputations, and opportunities can be heavily dependent on your ethnic claims.
I know a little something about this from first-hand experience. As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon I heard an interesting tale about an acquaintance who was set to graduate but ran into a snag. In order to pick-up his sheepskin, he needed to take some basic math course to fulfill a requirement for his B.S. His schedule was already packed with other needed graduation requirements in his final semester, and there was only one class that fit his schedule. When he tried to register for the class, the school's automated phone registration system wouldn't let him join the class even though it indicated that the class was far from full. Then he discovered there was an asterisk next to the math class in the course catalog telling him he had to pre-register with the Office of Multicultural Affairs. So he called the Multicultural dean and explained his situation, and asked if he could be allowed to register for the class. No dice.
At this point he was firmly annoyed about all of this, so he looked up the relevant state laws and it turns out ethnicity is treated as a matter of self-declaration. Supposedly, the state can't even inquire into person's claims of ethnicity. So this person marched down to the registrar's office and changed the ethnicity on his transcript to reflect he was Native American, which, let's face it, is the easiest way for a white person to lay claim to without raising other questions. (Besides, it may or may not turn out to be true, but it's outright common for white people -- especially as you head farther west -- to have some family lore about Indian blood.) Anyway, he registered for his class and graduated on time.
I always found this story amusing, but bear in mind I never personally verified the details. Flash forward a year or so, and I'm a recent graduate at my first job in Washington, D.C. I'm at a party and one of the guests is, in vino veritas, spitting nails about how her roommate who had a dismal LSAT score got into a top law school and she didn't. Then one day, she checks the mail at their apartment and sees a letter from minority admissions. Supposedly, she'd known this girl for years and her family was whiter than a mayonnaise convention, but her last name had Z in it and sounded vaguely Hispanic.
Maybe this was all sour grapes. But having heard two stories involving (potentially) false claims of ethnicity to game the university system, I thought I'd see how easily it could be done. As it happens, I'd be taking a trip back to Oregon soon and I'd be visiting my old campus.
I marched into the registrar's office and asked to change the ethnicity on my transcript. The clerk didn't bat an eye. She actually asked me, "What would you like it to be?" I told her Native American. Then she threw me for a loop. She asked what tribe. As I scrambled to remember what tribes were in the area, I remembered some family lore about my great-grandfather. One winter about a century ago, a band of Shoshone Indians were passing through and asked if they could camp out on my great-grandfather's ranch (my family owned much of the land that's now Castle Rock state park in Idaho). The Shoshone returned to the ranch the following year to give my great-grandfather a pair of impressively beaded leather gloves to thank him for his hospitality. My grandmother had them mounted and framed. They're hanging on the wall in my parents house.
In any event, I imagine this bit of family lore gives me a bigger claim to being a Shoshone Indian than a lot of people who think they're of Native American descent. If you were to pull my college transcript today, I believe it will still reflect that I'm Shoshone. I'm not, but I hope some vestigial familial respect allows any members of that proud tribe to forgive me for claiming to be among them.
I've also never tried to use my false claims of ethnicity for any selfish purposes; on the contrary, I was quite public about all of this when it happened in June of 2000. I used the tale of my transcript to write a column for the American Spectator's website about false claims of ethnicity on college campuses. No one much cared about the column at the time, but I've long suspected ethnic impostors in higher education were far more common than people realize. Elizabeth Warren's family lore notwithstanding, I still think that's true.