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Why Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Fiasco Matters

The 2020 contender’s claim to Native American heritage was a blunder, and the Left shouldn’t dismiss it

United States Senator Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in Woburn, Massachusetts, on August 8th, 2018.

CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick announced Wednesday that he will not run for president in 2020, citing the “cruelty of our elections process.” This was understandable, given that the Bain Capital managing director has a record of helping subprime lenders swindle middle class African Americans. It was odd, though, to see the Boston Globe celebrate Patrick’s decision by telling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to join him on the sidelines.

In an editorial published Friday morning , the Globe argued that Warren “has become a divisive figure,” a quality that I thought was inherent to politics. “Warren missed her moment in 2016, and there’s reason to be skeptical of her prospective candidacy in 2020,” the editorial read, adding, “There’s no shame in testing the waters and deciding to stay on the beach.” Telling a woman as talented as Warren that she only had one “moment” to make such a move? There is certainly shame in that.

Whether or not Warren runs in 2020 is of little concern today. “Are you running for president?” is the most useless question to ask a politician; you rarely get an answer worth anything, and it wastes time that could be spent getting to the heart of more important matters. I think that the question of why Warren decided to seek a DNA test to verify her Native American heritage is more pressing, whether or not she runs.

Warren’s showy October rollout of those test results — complete with a Globe exclusive and a well-produced YouTube video detailing how she had a Native American ancestor — was her attempt to end two controversies. One, facts might take some of the sting out of President Trump’s bigoted bullying. Two, the results would bolster the Globe’s earlier reporting that Warren’s 1989 decision to switch her ethnic identification while at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from “White/Caucasian” to “Native American or Alaskan Native” was done to honor past matriarchs amid a string of family deaths and garnered her no favoritism from that employer or others.

Warren indisputably failed on both counts. At the time of her announcement, Chuck Hoskin, the Cherokee Nation secretary of state, rebuked the senator. “It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven,” Hoskin said in a statement, noting that such tests cannot determine tribal membership. “Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” Though Warren insisted that she was claiming Cherokee heritage, not citizenship, University of Alberta professor Kim Tallbear argued that the senator would confuse a public (and press) unfamiliar with the difference. Tallbear, who wrote a book about Native American DNA, blasted Warren for “making settler-colonial claims” to both the cultural and biological birthright of indigenous peoples. And after Trump responded to the DNA test results with a “Who cares,” his racist ridicule of her continued unabated.

It is evident from the Globe’s reporting that Warren did not benefit one bit, politically or from past employers, for making that identification. But it has never sat right with me that she felt that she could such enjoy such racial flexibility without consequence. The months since the test have demonstrated that she has refused to deal with why it was foolish to make such a claim in the first place.

New York Times reporter Astead Herndon wrote Thursday that Warren “has yet to allay criticism from grass-roots progressive groups, liberal political operatives and other potential 2020 allies who complain that she put too much emphasis on the controversial field of racial science.” The piece added that advisers close to the senator say that Warren has “privately expressed concern that she may have damaged her relationships to Native American groups and her own standing with activists.” One Cherokee genealogist even told Herndon that because of this, she will never vote for Warren under any circumstances.

Warren, for her part, told the Times that she stands by her handling of the DNA results. “I put it out there,” she said. “It’s on the internet for anybody to see. People can make of it what they will. I’m going to continue fighting on the issues that brought me to Washington.”

Herndon’s report was roundly condemned, and unfairly so, by many liberals and some members of the media. Some impugned Herndon’s reporting, introducing a narrative that it was yet another New York Times effort to take down a female contender for the White House. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted the report while remarking that, “There’s something very (Hillary) Clinton-esque about the Warren DNA test story and the way the press is handling it,” adding that while Warren showed poor judgment, it is “a minor story treated like a major crisis.” The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman dismissed the controversy entirely, deeming it “utterly disconnected from anything having to do with the presidency and something Republicans will try to use to distract from anything resembling a real issue.” He called it the “But her emails!” of 2020.

With all due respect to Waldman, that is lazy analysis. The story is not the Right’s handling of the DNA story or how reporting it “plays into their hands.” The story is the concern coming from the Left, specifically from one of the most marginalized and terrorized minorities in this nation. Equating this with the Clinton email story is asinine, speaking more to the trauma and guilt of journalists who feel that our profession played a significant role in getting Trump elected.

If the DNA story doesn’t touch your life somehow, consider yourself privileged. It clearly matters to a less recognized, yet significant bloc of Warren’s party. Warren’s office declined comment to Rolling Stone on Herndon’s report. I believe that the senator doesn’t yet seem to understand that she bungled this. Yet, we are supposed to let the story go because some members of the press either make false equivalencies — or, even worse, prioritize tidying up Warren’s narrative ahead of a 2020 run? Count me out.

It’s not our role as journalists to help get certain candidates elected. Our job is to hold them accountable, along with everyone else. In the course of performing this duty, we sometimes help make politicians better at what they do. Yet it seems as though some are more concerned about whether this story might derail one of the strongest potential contenders to Trump.

If Trump were to run against Warren in the general election, he would likely keep calling her “Pocahontas” whether or not we choose to cover this story. Does the DNA test mean as much as Warren’s legislative record, her necessary condemnation of military overreach or her strong rhetoric concerning institutional racism? Does it nullify the sweeping bill that she introduced in September to fix America’s discriminatory housing practices, which includes $2 billion to build or rehabilitate 200,000 homes on tribal land? Certainly not. Still, her stupefying handling of the DNA story portends future missteps upon the third rail of race. Listening to the complaints of Native Americans and other progressives about this should be the priority, not caping for the candidate.

One of the major stories of the 2018 midterms was the disenfranchisement of Native Americans in North Dakota via an absurd voter-ID law. It may have cost Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp her seat, as Republicans surely intended when they put those restrictions in place. For people on the Left to turn right after that episode and erase voices of Native Americans simply because they have beef with Warren, a candidate whom they like, is to compound the senator’s error.

Warren should never have to apologize for having Oval Office ambitions, nor even for revealing them as clumsily as she did with this DNA test. By no means is this as damning a deal as what Patrick did to scuttle his own potential run. But Warren is letting this continue to be a problem. Failing to recognize how and why it went wrong — to say nothing of withholding an apology — is surely a troubling sign for a would-be president. We’ve had enough of that.

In This Article: Elizabeth Warren

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