The Atlantic published a story this morning titled “Elizabeth Warren Has Lost Her Way” which looks back on her decision to take a DNA test to settle the question of her heritage and blames the whole affair on President Trump.
Here we must pause to give grudging admiration to the wicked effectiveness of Trump’s methods. His bullying seems so crude and impulsive when it’s belching through the news cycle. But what other Republican politician could force a progressive senator with presidential ambitions to produce a fat dossier attesting to her own whiteness? Is she leading the resistance or trying to join the Savannah Junior League, circa 1952? The PDFs are intended, of course, as an ironclad rebuke to Trump’s claims about affirmative action, but given the way the left interprets race, might they just as easily be regarded as a testament to her own successful claim on white privilege? Becky goes to Harvard.
In my view, Flanagan is quite a bit too eager to blame Warren’s decision to take the test on Trump. Yes, he did mock her alleged heritage quite a few times in the past two years but he isn’t the one who told Harvard to list Warren as Native American in government-mandated EEOC reports. She did that. He isn’t the one who contributed recipes to a Native cookbook. Warren did that. He isn’t the one who bragged about having a Native American professor on staff. Harvard did that. Warren has said she never benefitted from her self-identification, but there’s no doubt Harvard tried to do so. And Trump isn’t the one who stuck to very specific heritage claims after genealogical investigations found no evidence of any Native American ancestor. Warren did that too.
Clearly, the media was content to give her a pass on all of it but there’s no reason her political opponents should do so. She’s been peddling a lie. She’s been adopting a culture that isn’t hers and has refused to relinquish it. All of that should be fair game for mockery.
The “lost her way” portion of the headline is a reference to something author Caitlin Flanagan says in the conclusion of the piece, where she compares Warren’s DNA test to one taken by racist Richard Spencer:
The reduction of identity to percentages of a genome reminded me of another American who pledged to put his DNA results on the line as proof of his right place in the culture: Richard Spencer. He had expected a report of “white,” “white,” “white,” but ended up with something that has remained the subject of anxious jokes—of the kind that would require the combined talents of William Faulkner and Sigmund Freud to interpret—among Spencer and his fellow travelers. His DNA is only 99.5 percent of European origin. The other 0.5 percent includes African heritage and—to the tune of 0.1 percent—“Broadly East Asian and Native American” heritage, according to the report from 23andMe, which uses a methodology not directly comparable to Warren’s test.
When you follow an impulse that puts you in league with Richard Spencer, you have lost your way, and birds have eaten all the bread crumbs that could have led you back home. Only disaster can follow. Thank God the Cherokee Nation’s secretary of state made a statement about the test: Warren was guilty of “undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage,” and “DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship.”
Warren’s impulse to be something she’s really not (Native American) is just the inverse of Spencer’s impulse to avoid being something he’s really not (African). Warren has made her 1% heritage a source of pride and Spencer presumably sees his 0.5% heritage as a source of shame. One impulse may seem nobler, but at base, both reactions make identity (as determined by DNA or family lore) far too important. The problem, in short, is identity politics run amok:
The United States of America is like the Cherokee Nation: DNA tests are irrelevant to our conception of citizenship. The poison that has been trying to seep into our groundwater these past few years would tell us something different: that race is everything, the only thing. Genetic tests are filled with truths that are irrefutable and oftentimes terrible—how many people have learned from one of these reports that the man who raised them is not their father? That is their right place: the private sphere of the individual life. Allowing Donald Trump to so inspire you, like Spencer, or so unnerve you, like Warren, that you try to justify yourself by making them public is something we should resist at every turn.
There’s nothing wrong with having some personal feeling about your racial or ethnic heritage in your own family. That’s normal. But when it becomes foundational to your politics it does become poisonous. That’s true of Richard Spencer of course but it’s also true of Warren and lot of other hucksters on the left who’ve been trying to make identity politics the glue that holds the left-wing coalition together and (they hope) in power.
But the broader point here has nothing to do with Trump or DNA. Spencer’s racism was noxious before he took a DNA test to prove his purity. Indeed if cheap DNA testing had been around 50 years ago, it’s not hard to imagine lots of racists like Spencer taking a test to prove their racial purity. The impulse is what’s ugly, not the technology.
Similarly, Warren’s decision to announce herself as a Native American later in her career was obnoxious and wrong-headed before she ever took the DNA test. She should have said 10 years ago what she’s (partly) saying now, i.e. she’s never been a member of any recognized tribe, the end. She’s a tribalist without a tribe.
The better approach to all of this is the one that, until a few years ago, people on the left and right seemed to mostly agree with, i.e. race should, in an ideal world, be irrelevant because people are individuals, not examples of a type based on heritage or skin color. That not to say that racism isn’t real or that we’re close to that ideal world at this moment. But identity politics on the right or the left is a step in the wrong direction. Warren has lost her way but she’s far from being alone in a party obsessed with identity politics.