Elizabeth Warren`s Indian Status
May 04, 2012, 10:21 PM
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I`ve read a lot about the controversy over Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren having apparently been listed as a minority in university reports to the federal government on the grounds that she is 1/32nd Cherokee. 

For example, here`s an NYT op-ed "Elizabeth Warren`s Birther Moment" by a law school professor who says he too is Native American, but, otherwise, I can`t quite make out what he`s trying to say other than that Republicans are evil. 

Please correct me if I`m wrong, but I was under the impression that, legally, a person either is recognized as a member of a Native American tribe or is not. It`s not like being Irish on St. Patrick`s Day, it`s a legal matter of whether or not one is on the tribe`s rolls. It`s not even like being black or Hispanic where there is a presumption in favor of self-identification. Legally, being an American Indian is not a matter of asserting one`s American Indianishness, it`s a matter of being accepted by a federally recognized Indian tribe as an official member.

Each tribe defines membership for itself. It`s not a question of whether you think you qualify under those membership rules but whether the tribe agrees that you qualify. You are free to apply for membership, but many who apply are not accepted. Indeed, many one-time tribe members get cast out during periodic purges.

This is hardly a trivial or obscure point, because who gets shares of casino profits depend upon it. Moreover, Indian tribes frequently get in the news for holding Cypress Point-style membership drives in which they drive out members. One Cherokee tribe recently expelled a few thousand blackish members for not being Cherokee enough.

I would expect law professors like Warren and Maillard to understand that. This op-ed never addresses whether or not Warren is an enrolled member of one of the Cherokee Nations. If Elizabeth Warren is an enrolled member of one of the Cherokee Nations then she is legally entitled to claim minority status. If she is not on the membership roll of the Cherokee Nation, she should not have claimed to be Cherokee for purposes of her academic legal career. We`re not talking about a romantic schoolgirl or an elderly genealogy enthusiast here, we`re talking about a Harvard law professor. It`s not a really complicated legal question for a Harvard law professor to get right.

As usual, Republican commentators appear to be exceptionally ignorant about the mechanics of how affirmative action categories work. This is a topic that demands vastly more attention than it gets from Republicans. As a notorious raving extremist, I`m always counseling that we should attempt to understand where all sides are coming from in the major long-term arguments. For example, is race a biological phenomenon or a social construct? Well, it`s both, and it`s important to grasp the precise reasons for it being both and how they apply to each group.

In determining the future of the country, the usual issues of the day, such as the estate tax or whatever, aren`t really that important. The real drivers of the future will be how many people are in America, who they are, and who they think they are. Only the last of the three questions is considered at all proper to bring up in Republican circles, and even then it`s kept on this woozy level of how people ought to feel, with little discussion of how government policy influences how people feel about who they are. And the notion that government policies on falls in what category could be adjusted for the long-term benefit of the Republican Party is almost wholly alien to Republicans.

When Republicans do talk about how the government defines race and ethnicity, the level of insight is low, typically based on wishful moralizing about blacks. You`ll see assertions that black people only feel black because the government gives them affirmative action for saying they are black. Most people recognize that as a pretty stupid argument, and since few whites care about anybody other than whites and blacks, the fact that this line of thought is less stupid when applied to Hispanics or to South Asians being counted in with Chinese never ever dawns on Republican "strategists."