Elizabeth Warren’s Native Irony

The kerfuffle over why Elizabeth Warren (sometimes) identified herself as Native American when she joined and served on the faculty of various law schools seems to have much more to do with how desperate elite educational institutions can be for some patina of diversity and with white Americans longtime fascination with America’s native population than with any of the central issues that ought to be driving the Senate race between Scott Brown and America’s foremost economic populist. However, Ross Douthat uses the controversy to make an interesting and effective point about how Elizabeth Warren really did bring a much-needed dose of substantive diversity to the institutions she joined:

A diverse faculty and campus can be a laudable goal. But the point is to build academic communities that actually contain a wide variety of experiences and perspectives, not to wax self-congratulatory because you’ve met a set of ethnic quotas. The story of Elizabeth Warren, “woman of color,” represents a reductio ad absurdum of the latter tendency, which has been all too prevalent in elite universities — giving us affirmative-action programs that benefit West Indian immigrants more than the descendants of slaves, and faculties that include a wider range of skin tones than of political and religious views.

The irony is that Warren herself probably did make Harvard more diverse, since she grew up the daughter of a janitor in Oklahoma — not a typical background, to put it mildly, for Ivy League students and faculty today. But under the academy’s cramped definitions, it was her grandfather’s Cherokee cheekbones, not her blue-collar roots, that led to her citation as a supposed trailblazer.

One does have to go all the way with Douthat’s condemnation of “faculties that include a wider range of skin tones that of political and religious views” to see that Warren’s hardscrabble, working class background not only added to the diversity of backgrounds-qua-backgrounds at every law school she’s ever been a part of, but it has clearly affected the substance of her academic work, which is largely concerned with a very detailed look at who declares bankruptcy and why they do so.

These issues are actually quite germane to Warren’s populist worldview and that of the left-wing of the Democratic party that adores her. That Brown (with an assist from Warren herself) has gotten us all talking about the exact nature of her claims to native ancestry, is not just a distraction, but a blow to the very cause that has animated all of Warren’s academic work and public advocacy.