Warren’s Ethnic Issue Should Not Go Away

I am an academic. I’ve taught at Tufts for over thirty years and always had a Harvard institutional affiliation. I understand academic culture and the centrality of affirmative action in administrative consciousness since the 1970s. In heading up numerous search committees for historians at Tufts, I’ve had to fill out forms at the invitation stage, listing all applicants by gender and ethnicity, according to an official categorization scheme. I’ve then justified the selection of the “shortlist” (maybe 10-12), and explaining the exclusion of the others.

Yes, you might think: why should three trained scholars selecting, out of (for example) 80 applicants the top 10, need to explain to the university administration why the others were NOT selected? Isn’t that a lot of needless bother? Isn’t it obvious that certain people stood out to all three and so the others stood out not necessarily for any clear deficiencies but just because they didn’t excite the specialists as much?

But no. One must pen in specific reasons: “relatively little teaching experience,” “limited topic,” “too early,” etc. and tally up the figures on gender, ethnicity and handicapped and veterans.

Then after the selection (prior to the job offer), one has to list candidates by gender and ethnicity and again explain why every candidate was not included or selected. It looks bad, for example, to have a list of candidates that have no African-Americans, even if it’s a position in ancient Chinese history; I have sometimes been instructed to do more outreach to ensure an absolutely inclusive pool. It is a time-consuming process. I am not for the time being complaining about it, merely explaining it to the layperson.

The process allows for political intervention. Should someone want to delay or abort a job search they might do so by alleging inadequate outreach, based on these ethnic lists as submitted to the affirmative action officer in the dean’s office. The handling in one way or other of ethnic identification is a big thing in the lives of academics.

Universities (obviously) actively seek ethnic diversity among the faculty, if only as an advertising point in an increasingly diverse society. The University of Pennsylvania in its faculty directory in the 1980s, and Harvard Law School in its directory in the 1990s, listed Elizabeth Warren as a Native American. This is no small thing.


I have “trace” (under 1%) Finnish genes, which makes sense because I’m mostly Scandinavian and Sweden ruled Finland for six centuries. But I would never self-identify as a Finnish-American. I have some Scots-Irish ancestry (1/32) and thus might feel entitled to march in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade., But I never identify as Celtic; there’s not enough there; it wouldn’t make sense. I also have trace “Middle East” genes according to one test but this adds nothing to my identity. It merely makes me speculate rationally, on the basis of my knowledge of European history, about why I might have such genes.

Ethnic identity is a subjective thing. I’ve always felt very white, especially due to my very fair complexion and blue-grey eyes. Proudly Nordic and Germanic, with some Celtic admixture and mysterious Iberian component, which I can only explain by the Thirty Years War’s impact on northern Switzerland in the early 1600s. (My surname is Swiss; the family goes back to at least the 1580s in a small town in Schaffhausen that was occupied by Spanish troops 400 years ago.) That might also explain the Middle Eastern genes since the Iberians had widely interbred with Moors.

My mother used to say she thought there was “Indian” in the Leupp family. She was under the (false) impression that Francis Leupp, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bureau of Indian Affairs chief (1909-13), was related to my father. (In fact, this person’s family origins were around Cologne, Germany; their name initially written Lupp but changed in the U.S. around 1850. They appear unrelated to the Swiss Leupps who have spelled the name that way since the late 1500s.) Francis Leupp was, of course, a white racist and his connection to Native Americans would not necessarily result in “miscegenation” in any case, but the association of the Leupp name and Native Americans stimulated my mom’s imagination. She thought some Leupp relatives had “Indian features,” especially because they’d settled in Lakota country. But no, they were all Germanic features. My DNA tests show no Native American ancestry at all.

Anyway, on employment application forms if the question was asked I honestly indicated “white.”

The similarly white Elizabeth Warren, who is only six years older than me, part of the same generation and culture, wrote “Native American” on her job applications. In 1984 she contributed a recipe to a Native American cookbook, identifying herself as Cherokee. Her 1986 Texas bar registration card lists her as Native American. The University of Pennsylvania in its faculty directory in the 1980s, and Harvard Law School in its directory in the 1990s, listed Warren as a Native American. She was listed among minority faculty to emphasize the schools’ ethnic diversity.

This was all before Warren left the Republican Party and became a Democrat at age 40 in 1996. She had been a traditional Republican: an advocate for less regulation of public utilities (Notre Dame Law Review, 1980), an opponent of the “European socialist model,” a Sunday school teacher. Gradually she morphed into a Progressive Democrat, and (for the DNC and MSNBC) the Great White Hope to defeat “socialist” Bernie if the self-injured “front-runner” Biden falters.

Biden is a doddering establishment figure with zero appeal to people under 40. He’s always been “gaffe” prone; now he’s mentally frail. The cable news anchors reassure us with each poll that Biden maintains his lead, but they see it slipping and must promote a second choice. This cannot be Sanders, whose original sin was to declare himself a socialist; he poses a threat to the system and so, however impressive his sustained support, he’s not going to become president. Let’s get that straight.

(Recall how a DNC staffer once responded to a report that Clinton shill Debbie Wasserman-Schultz would be dismissed as DNC chair if elected president, emailed the team: “This is a silly story. Sanders isn’t going to be president.” That is precisely the view of the current DNC and its media parrots. Do a Google search about the current DNC treasurer and Biden’s role in his wedding.)

Warren however, given her background, ideological flexibility, articulated opposition to socialism and abject loyalty oath to capitalism, is at least conceivable as president, if only to keep Sanders from power. (It’s likely that the two camps will merge eventually, but the mainstream media wants Warren to lead the emerging progressive camp.) It wants you to choose her over him, as the better option to both defeat Trump and stave off socialism.

And so the media has largely dropped the issue of Warren’s problematic ethnic claims. She has taken a DNA test that shows she is about 95% of European ancestry but had at least one Native American ancestor six to ten generations back. This could mean a Native woman having a child by a white man, or (less likely) a Native man with a white woman, any time from the 1770s to 1850s.

Whew! she must have thought. Her claims had been validated if minimally and her political career saved. She hadn’t been completely fake in telling the Texas bar and two universities that she was Native American.

But no, let’s revisit the issue. Let’s keep it alive because it matters. Warren, perhaps concerned that the test results did not support her “Native American” identification any more than my trace Finnish makes me a Finnish-American, changed the subject. She apologized to Native Americans for not realizing (and regretting in a warbling Sally Struthers voice) that only tribes determine tribal membership. As though that had been the problem to begin with—that she hadn’t sought tribal permission to identify as a Cherokee.

Forget the fact that she—a Republican who’d voted for Ford in 1976 and was perhaps opposed to the Bakke decision of 1978 that upheld affirmative action—abused affirmative action principles in advancing her career using her ethnic claim. (Harvard can say, no, her putative ethnicity played no role in hiring or promotion. Maybe not. But it’ seems she wanted it to.)

Warren states that there was a long family tradition of appreciating Cherokee heritage. One of her brothers, David Herring, has said that his grandfather had told him “Your grandfather is part Delaware, a little bitty bit, way back, and your grandmother is part Cherokee.” With two other brothers he issued a statement defending Warren: “We grew up listening to our mother and grandmother and other relatives talk about our family’s Cherokee and Delaware heritage. They’ve passed away now, but they’d be angry if they were around today listening to all this.’’ The DNA tells the little bitty bit story.

So Warren—who again is 95% European white—thought it proper to identify principally as an American Indian during her whole academic career. (Why do I recall Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who wanted to be black—and so she did—and then got called out? She was surely a well-meaning, decent NAACP leader, but she lied, injuring and puzzling real black people in the process.) And she’s only been called out on the issue as a presidential candidate. She would just like to get it behind her, and people forget.

Warren is the establishment’s back-up plan, if Biden implodes. She’s not socialist, and that’s the main thing. Her exploitation of dubious ethnic roots to professional advantage is no biggie. She is the non-Sanders in a frozen Demo line-up that pits Wall Street (Biden) against the anti-Wall Street Sanders. The Pocahontas issue is over. She’s electable, she can defeat Trump.

Of course, if Warren is the nominee, the Pocahontas issue will be central to the Trump campaign. A man whose life has been based on the lie of successful business versus a woman whose career has been based in part on the cynical exploitation of ethnic claims. So let’s talk about electability. Sanders is a relentlessly honest, transparent, self-identifying Democratic Socialist who has a huge mass base that would double immediately with Warren’s withdrawal—a mass base that would have brought Bernie to victory in 2016, if the Democratic National Committee under the disgusting Debbie Wasserman-Schultz hadn’t acted to prevent it. Polls show him almost as likely to win against Trump as Biden—an empirical refutation of Biden’s boast that only he can defeat Trump. All three Democratic front-runners easily defeat Trump in current polls but Sanders has the solidest base, organizational experience, and enduring appeal to the young.

Trump vs. Biden would be a rerun of 2016, Biden rooting himself in the Obama years, bemoaning the “anomaly” of the Trump term, promising a return to normalcy.

Trump vs. Warren would be an exercise in anti-Wall Street rhetoric accompanied by relentless taunts drawing attention to ethnic pretensions. “She wrote Native American on her Harvard employment application form!” Trump will bellow. The issue won’t go away.

Trump vs. Sanders would be a clear clash of a man personifying capitalism at its most disgusting and corrupt, against an articulate exponent of universal health care, free college education, and a New Green Deal with no baggage comparable to Warren’s. He doesn’t talk about ethnicity much, other than to note he’s the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. Trump dare not attack him on that score but his current appeals to Evangelicals—to rally around him to protect their religious rights— suggest a campaign strategy.

North Carolina rally, 9/9: “Our Evangelicals are here tonight and they’re all over [rousing applause] and what we’ve done for them and for religion is so important. You know the other side, I don’t think they’re big believers and not big believers in religion. That I can tell you. Listen to some of them. They’re trying, they’re trying to put out little statements are not working too well. Those statements are a little bit sort of not too good huh.”

Democrats are not big believers in religion, says Trump. He surely knows Sanders is an agnostic if not atheist. He would never attack him for any Jewish religious beliefs. But he could attack him for their absence, appealing to an indignant Evangelical community that loves Netanyahu’s Israel but has no use for secular Jews like Marx, Freud, Einstein, Chomsky and this Bernie guy. (Trump surely knows that the DNC considered using Sanders’ “atheism” against him in southern primaries.) But Trump’s religious supporters are in decline, as is religious belief in general. Attacking Sanders for nonbelief could backfire on Trump.

All in all, Sanders is the best bet to beat Trump next year. He’ll just get no help from MSNBC in doing so. The channel’s Donny Deutsch, capitalist and media personality, with his own program Saturday nights, has actually declared he would vote for Trump over Sanders. Willie Geist warns that socialism is toxic, Kryptonite in U.S. politics. They want a return to normal under Biden; they’re just worried that he’s not just making gaffes but showing signs of mental decline. And his main support base—older African-American men who see him as Obama’s loyal lieutenant—may decline as his full record comes under more scrutiny. Keywords: busing, credit cards, Crime Bill, Anita Hill, Iraq War, James Eastland. If he slips into further decline, media enthusiasm for Warren will grow. She will repeat, with encouragement, “I am a capitalist” to reassure them that their support is for a safe system advocate, not a real rebel.

Polls show Sanders trailing Warren in New Hampshire. Under the circumstances, the Sanders folks should draw attention to the racism implicit in the exploitation of a reed-thin ethnic link, and the dishonesty. Avoiding Trump’s mocking tone, they should convey moral concern at such opportunism and insensitivity. Having made the point, note the ideological inconsistency during her academic career and her warm support for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Quote her ass-kissing comments about capitalism; note how her Capitalism Accountability Act is designed to preserve the system. She notes that widening income inequality is “a problem for capitalism and for democracy at the same time.” The fact is, capitalism inevitably produces mounting inequalities and flourishes under (bourgeois) democracies and under non-democratic systems. Note that Sanders’ Green New Deal proposal is considered the gold standard among environmentalists, better than Warren’s plan. Note that Sanders, not Warren, has transformed the Democrats’ understanding of universal health care as a human right and paved the way for Warren.

Warren wants to boast of her long friendship with Bernie, and she can’t afford to alienate his supporters. She also wants boast that she’s a capitalist. She thus promotes herself to the corporate establishment as the much less threatening version of Bernie, and to the Sanderistas as the next best thing.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu