Why Is Warren Rehashing the 'Deeply Stupid' Debate Over Her Ancestry?

Her sharing of DNA test results are a preview of what's shaping up to be a petty and contentious 2020 race.
October 15, 2018, 8:34pm
Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump
Photo of Elizabeth Warren by Win McNamee/Getty Images; photo of Donald Trump by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The controversy over Elizabeth Warren's Native American ancestry is probably one of the slowest-moving scandals in political history, if you can even call it a scandal. Questions over her heritage dogged her when she ran for Senate in Massachusetts in 2012, and the right-wing media has kept the narrative alive to the point where she earned the nickname "Pocahontas" from Donald Trump.

On Monday, Warren, who's currently running for reelection and widely considered to be a 2020 presidential contender, released a political ad about her Native American heritage, as well as a DNA test conducted by genetics expert Carlos D. Bustamante. According to the Boston Globe, the test found "that 'the vast majority' of Warren’s ancestry is European, but “the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor.”

During her first senatorial campaign, the Boston Herald reported that when she was hired as law professor at Harvard, its law school "prominently touted Warren’s Native American background… in an effort to bolster their diversity hiring record in the ’90s as the school came under heavy fire for a faculty that was then predominantly white and male."

At the time, her campaign told the Herald that "the candidate never authorized Harvard Law to claim her as a minority hire." But as the Globe noted in their report on her ancestry, "During her academic career as a law professor, she had her ethnicity changed from white to Native American at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she taught from 1987 to 1995, and at Harvard University Law School, where she was a tenured faculty member starting in 1995." Right-wing critics have lambasted Warren ever since that Herald story, suggesting that she lied about, or at best exaggerated, her ancestry in order to further her law career.

It doesn't seem like she her career benefitted much from claims she was Native. "She's probably one of the 100 best law professors of the last half-century, and to try to belittle that with this nonsense is very unfair," Olin "Guy" Wellborn, a professor at UT Austin Law, where Warren used to teach, said in her video. But if the attacks on her seem petty and not particularly damning, it was odd that Warren launched a big PR push to refute them, putting her ancestry back in the spotlight. It's especially odd considering, per the Globe:

The inherent imprecision of the six-page DNA analysis could provide fodder for Warren’s critics. If her great-great-great-grandmother was Native American, that puts her at 1/32nd American Indian. But the report includes the possibility that she’s just 1/1024th Native American if the ancestor is 10 generations back.

Regardless of whether Warren is 1/32nd or 1/1024th Native American, she offers a compelling explanation for why her distant heritage is meaningful to her in her campaign video: Her father's family didn't approve of his relationship with her mother, due to the fact that her mother was part Cherokee, so they had to elope.

Criticism of Warren's campaign video and DNA report has been swift—she's responding to one of Trump's criticisms of her, thus playing right into his hands, and creating, as the Weekly Standard's Andrew Egger wrote, "a deeply stupid news cycle." She's opening up a debate about her identity that she may not win—as the Daily Caller's Joe Simonson wrote on Twitter, "The reason why Warren's team thought this DNA test was a good idea is because her team are a bunch of over-educated liberals who fetishize minority status and think having *any* percentage of Native blood is some sort of divine mark."


If nothing else, she's letting Trump define the terms of her in utero presidential campaign by responded so directly to the "Pocahontas" name. As BuzzFeed's Ben Smith wrote, "The reality is that the most important pundit, commentator, and great mentioner of the 2020 primary will be President Donald Trump. And the challenge for the media will be whether or not to let him dominate the Democratic primary."

But even though her test results are giving her a wave of bad press, this is a safe time for Warren to put this controversial, Trump-driven story back in the news (she currently is running a Senate reelection campaign she already knows she is going to win). The video is testing the waters for the 2020 presidential campaign; at least it allows her to say that she addressed the question exhaustively.

And if the response is any indication, the 2020 presidential election stands to be just as petty and absurd and heated as 2016 contest.

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