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Elizabeth Warren and the myth of race

As the nation gears up for midterm elections, campaigning politicians across the country are pulling out all the stops—as per usual—to promote their platforms and connect with their constituency. However, one recent public stunt that severely missed the mark was from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has been making rounds in the new cycle for using a DNA testing service to prove her proclaimed Native American ancestry. Warren submitted her DNA for analysis in response to President Trump’s repeated instances of mocking Warren by calling her “Pocahontas” and his promised $1 million charity donation if genetic testing supported her Cherokee and Delaware heritage. Earlier this month, the senator released test results that claimed there was biological evidence for Native American ancestry dating back six to ten generations ago for Warren.

The backlash Warren received for declaring indigenous tribal affiliation was nearly instantaneous. Kim Tallbear, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, stated that the “very desire to locate a claim to Native American identity in a DNA marker inherited from a long-ago ancestor is a settler-colonial racial understanding of what it is to be Native American.” The Cherokee Nation—the largest of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the United States—released a statement criticizing Warren’s actions as “undermining tribal interests.” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. emphasized the uselessness of a DNA test to determine tribal citizenship and affiliation. Different tribes have a variety of differing established citizenship requirements for enrollment—ranging from geographic location and familial ties to cultural knowledge—but the blood quantum metric is one the emerged not as a reflection of indigenous definitions of relations, but from laws enacted by the U.S. Federal Government.

Anger from tribal leaders and Native American activists across the country over this situation stems from Warren’s acceptance of inaccurate, settler colonial race science as well as the lack of nuance in understanding Native American culture, society and history—much of which has been violently and systematically repressed in the process of settler colonialism, land dispossession and genocide.

Furthermore, what’s particularly frustrating about Warren’s use of the DNA test is that it reinforces the eugenicist notion that race has a biological basis when that’s simply not true. There is no objective, reliable, meaningful criteria scientists can use to construct or identify racial groupings because most visible traits vary continuously and our cultural differentiations between races don’t have reflections in a set of nucleotides. Race is culturally meaningful, not biologically meaningful; race is a social construct, not a biological construct. Though race has no biological basis, the social construct of race produces differential tangible reality for different perceived racial groups. This is why DNA tests like the one Warren took are unable to determine race.

With Warren’s insensitive centering of her barely existent “ethnically” marginalized heritage in her political career, this news item also allows us to consider the larger context of politicians manipulating the discourse of racial identity in the United States. In a burgeoning era of irresponsible weaponization of identity, it has become increasingly fashionable to emphasize or adopt a certain racial/ethnic identity to further personal gain or to conversely develop a reactionary position of white-washing oneself. 

Warren officially listed her ethnic identity as Native American, rather than white as she had previously indicated, as a law professor in the 1990s at Harvard University—a questionable move which she’s never fully addressed—and has since been using her debatable “indigeneity” as a chess piece politically. Both former President Barack Obama and California Senator Kamala Harris have been criticized for raking in support based on their race while not delivering enough politically for their Black constituency on issues that affected the the most—like police violence and mass incarceration. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley—born Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa—has altered her name and presents herself as an evangelical white Christian woman similarly to how Texas Senator Ted Cruz—born Rafael Edward Cruz—has shied away from name-based ethnic affiliation during his time in the Republican party. Ben Carson, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former neurosurgeon, has used his race to push back against talking points about police abuse and has acted as a green light for the Republican Party to continue pushing policies that harm black Americans. The appearance of a certain race or ethnicity is automatically imagined to translate into progressivism or at least acting in the interest of that demographic, with little scrutiny paid to stances or voting records. 

Warren, like every other public figure hoping to gain points in the political landscape by clinging to or rejecting racial and ethnic difference, has played into this damaging pattern of behavior that flattens cultural or personal meanings of racial identification. Regardless of the outcome of these actions, ultimately, the consequences of reducing race to a political chess piece far outweigh any possible gains.

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