In a time of stark polarization, when America is more divided than ever and when the left and the right are unable to find any kind of common ground, both sides of the political divide seem at last to express agreement on one particular matter: It is wrong to exploit racial ancestry to serve a political purpose. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, — who succumbed to President Trump’s puerile mockery by releasing her DNA test to the public in order to prove her Native American ancestry — has taught us this lesson.
The criticism is not, of course, identical on both sides of the political aisle. The left is upset, among other reasons, because she conflated small traces of genetic ancestry with inclusion in an ethnic group to which she had no connection other than some family stories. The Cherokee Nation even issued an official statement explaining to Warren the irrelevance of DNA to tribal citizenship: “Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” The right is upset, among many other reasons, because she seems to have used her family stories to claim the status as a “Native American” professor at Penn and as the first woman-of-color professor at Harvard Law. But Ross Douthat at the New York Times expresses well the annoyance felt by both sides: “From the identitarian left to the anti-affirmative-action right, I defy you to find a single person invested in these debates who believes that someone who might be one-64th or even one-32nd Indian and whose Cherokee experience consists of old family stories should qualify as a first ‘minority’ hire in anything.”
Furthermore, Warren’s pandering to Trump’s shenanigans serves to degrade political discourse into a farce. Michelle Obama famously proclaimed the proper response to these tactics: “Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.” Warren did not heed this advice. By internalizing and taking seriously Trump’s mockery, Warren descended to his level and legitimized it, with the bonus effect of offending the very people for whom she had claimed to speak. And in spite of — from what I can tell — nearly unanimous disapproval, she is nevertheless doubling down on her DNA test, now saying that she released it for the sake of restoring “trust in government.” More likely, she wants to appear confident and strong against Trump in anticipation of a possible presidential bid in 2020.
A week from now, as it happens, Warren will address the Brown community at the Governor Frank Licht ’38 Lecture. This is a great opportunity for her to speak on the controversy surrounding her decision to release the results of her DNA test and the dubious backing they provide to her claim of Native American ancestry. I, therefore, address this open letter to Warren in anticipation of next Thursday’s lecture:
Dear Sen. Warren,
With all due respect, might you just acknowledge your mistake? Everyone else acknowledges it. If the goal of the Democratic party is — as it ought to be — to mend the sorry state of political discourse into which the country has fallen, then the best way of forwarding that goal is to acknowledge that DNA tests play no role in it. Brown itself grapples with issues of diversity. To claim minority status on the basis of some family stories and a few strands of DNA — without a more substantial connection to that group — does not help institutions of higher education that seek to diversify themselves, and it does not help to voice the grievances of underrepresented groups. You have also dignified the rhetorical bafoonery and the ad hominem attacks that characterize Trumpian politics.
I, with utmost cordiality, request of you at least to address this controversy. It is your decision whether you should reconsider your position. But if you do stick to your position, as you have thus far done, I do hope that you are doing so on the basis of your principles and not for a political purpose, and that you will discuss those principles with us on Thursday.
James Flynn ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.