Why Liz Warren’s Cherokee Scandal Isn’t Going Away

This week, Scott Brown staffers taunted Liz Warren supporters by making chopping motions with their arms, while emanating what can only be described as “Indian sounds.” Last week, Brown’s very first comment at the very first Mass. Senate debate was an attack on Warren’s claims of Native American heritage. Brown’s strategy, of course, stems from evidence unearthed by the Boston Herald that Warren had listed herself as Native American in various law school directories.

While Warren may not have much of a claim to actual Native American ancestry, there’s no evidence that “checking the box” actually helped her get anywhere. Still, the story refuses to go away, and the “Fauxcahontas” revelations will forever be invoked if Warren loses in November. This story broke in April. How is it still a big deal?

The story persists in part because Scott Brown and the conservative Boston Herald can’t get enough of it. But I think it also owes its staying power to the bad memories many Massachusettseans associate with affirmative action, which is what this whole scandal is really about. Recall that in the 1970s, South Boston–where Scott Brown has planted his headquarters–was ground zero for the school busing battles that tore the city apart. After a federal judge mandated that Boston public schools bus minority children to white neighborhoods, and vice-versa, integration opponent and City Councilwoman Louisa Day Hicks formed the group “Restore Our Alienated Rights,” the staunchest anti-busing group in the country.

Here’s how PBS described the scene in Southie:

When school started in the fall of 1974, white parents met the buses of black students with racial epithets, stones and bottles. They shattered windows and sent black students home with broken glass in their hair.

Two decades later, a group of parents from Lynn, Massachusetts–another working-class enclave–sued the city over a forced school desegregation plan it had implemented in 1988. Ten years after that, one of Mitt Romney’s first moves as Governor was to quash a decades-old affirmative action policy that encouraged diversity hiring in state government.

All this is to say: Massachusetts has a fraught history with affirmative action and desegregation*, and many middle-class and working-class whites feel racial quotas stacked the deck against them and their children. Scott Brown, while no bigot, is pooling from the same sort of voters that rebelled against those policies in Southie, Lynn and elsewhere. Revelations that an elite, liberal Cambridge professor may have benefitted from affirmative action are going to resonate with them.

*Update: I added the word ‘desegregation’ here

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.