Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee Nation

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Elizabeth Warren, who on Saturday claimed the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, still has Indian trouble. Her claim to American Indian ancestry entered a new phase last week.

At first Warren said she learned that her employer, Harvard Law School, had cited her as a minority faculty member only after the Boston Herald informed her of it several weeks ago. Then last week she conceded that she herself had told Harvard that she was American Indian, though she said she told the university only after being hired.

Many Americans share, if not some Indian ancestry, at least what Warren has called "family lore" about Indian ancestry. What has given the story legs is its context. At elite institutions like Harvard, achieving racial diversity is both an ideal and a challenge. In such a highly competitive realm, certain racial designations not only lend cultural cachet to applicants for scarce places in the student body and faculty, but also market value, however inexact. Minorities can receive a leg up.

That's no doubt why Warren insists that she told Harvard of her (perhaps mythical) ancestry only after she'd been hired. She clearly doesn't want to be perceived as having benefited from affirmative action.

The Boston Globe reported that Warren claimed no minority status in applying to college or law school. Her application to Rutgers University Law School, which Warren attended, included the question: "Are you interested in applying for admission under the Program for Minority Group Students?" Warren answered, "No."

Yet at some point in the late 1980s, when she was teaching law at the University of Pennsylvania, Warren began listing herself as Native American in a legal directory. A recently-unearthed article from a 1997 Fordham Law Review describes Warren as the Harvard Law School faculty's "first woman of color."

Was Warren gaming the system to make herself more appealing to employers? The rules of racial preference are murky, but anyone in Warren's position would've understood that, all other things being equal, nonwhite status bestowed an advantage. Meanwhile, both Penn and Harvard seemed all too eager to claim credit for an extra dose of racial diversity on their faculties that, in reality, they lacked.

Fewer than 13 percent of American Indians have a bachelor’s degree, compared with almost 31 percent of whites. Median earnings among American Indians are roughly two-thirds those of whites. Penn, Harvard and other prominent schools have reason, beside historical injustice, to give qualified American Indian (or black or Hispanic) applicants a second look or even a modest helping hand. A commitment to fostering pluralism, and a breadth of experience and cultures, is central to their mission.

But opportunities for exploitation abound. National Public Radio reported that last year, before the Warren imbroglio, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a resolution condemning "fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education." The practice, it said, had grown "pervasive." According to the coalition, between 1990 and 2000, about 2,500 Native American students graduated from accredited U.S. law schools. During that same period, the U.S. Census reported an increase of just 228  Native American lawyers nationwide. The disparity suggests that some graduates may have self-reported to the Census as one race, and to their law schools as another.

Definitions of who is and isn't a racial minority can be hard to pin down. Given rising inequality and declining social mobility, class-based criteria may soon make a more compelling claim on public policy than racial criteria.

Until then, Warren's political troubles are a cautionary tale for race-sensitive institutions in the Ivy League and elsewhere. Affirmative action has trouble enough from its enemies. It doesn't need friends who appear cynical and self-serving.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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