Elizabeth Warren would make a great president. She’s smarter than anyone else in the race. She advances bold and unapologetically progressive ideas. She’s a truly fearless and earnest leader, not a cautious and mealy-mouthed politician.
But her candidacy would be a disservice to her ideas. The Washington Post’s cringeworthy revelation that she claimed American Indian as her racial identity on official documents – despite denying she’d ever done so – should end her White House quest.
Days before her planned announcement, Warren’s once again apologizing for fudging her racial identity. It’s a devastating scandal for a campaign, with questions of character wrapped in explosive racial issues. It’s painful to watch.
I believe Warren when she says she grew up with stories about her family’s native roots. Many of us grew up with similar tales. Like Warren, I have some Oklahoma heritage. My grandma, Jane, migrated from eastern Oklahoma to California in the 1940s. Everyone liked to say, with pride, that she was “part Indian.”
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DNA tests bolster these claims. According to AncestryDNA, at least 42% of my DNA suggests Native American descent. A distant cousin from Oklahoma who reached out to me via the site belongs to the Choctaw Nation. Grandma’s story seems to check out.
This doesn’t make me American Indian. I didn’t grow up with tribal culture, language or identity. I remain Chicano. Most Latinos are a mix of indigenous and European cultures. My grandfather often boasted of his Yaqui descent. My paternal grandmother, from Arizona, supposedly had Tohono O’odham heritage.
They didn’t have DNA tests, but they did have oral knowledge passed down by previous generations. I have no reason to doubt it, but – unlike Warren – I’ll never have to defend my racial identity in a campaign.
Race is complex and, some believe, subjective. Even Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, has endured criticism and questions about her racial identity. This seems unfair to me, but the fact that even Harris can be attacked reveals the thorny nature of the issue.
What’s most troubling about Warren’s story is not that she sought to lay claim to a distant heritage. The bigger problem is how her claims disrespected the reality facing many American Indians.
American Indians and Alaska Native peoples have the highest poverty rates of any group. One in four lives in poverty, according to Pew. At Standing Rock in South Dakota, 43% suffer poverty. Some estimate it’s closer to 90% at Pine Ridge.
This poverty fuels epidemic rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide. “Liquid genocide” is how some describe the deadly alcoholism crisis at Pine Ridge, where “up to two-thirds of adults live with alcoholism” and “one in four children are born with fetal alcoholism.”
In some Northern California Native American communities, most teens know someone who has attempted or committed suicide. Even Latin America – where most people are mixed-race – native peoples remain the poorest of the poor.
There are, of course, prosperous tribes and many success stories. Statistically, however, life is hard for Native Americans. That’s part of what makes it so offensive for a white person to claim their identity.
The genocide of 56 million native peoples between 1492 and 1610 was so intense it caused a reduction in carbon dioxide that literally cooled the planet, according to researchers at University College London.
The vast inequalities American Indians face today are a festering wound of injustice in need of moral and economic redress. To fix such injustices, we need leaders like Warren who aren’t afraid to take on powerful forces, tackle inequality and reject the dismal status quo.
But presidential politics is a ruthless blood sport, and I doubt she can overcome this scandal. Her actions raise serious questions about her character and alienate people of color. She took Trump’s DNA bet and lost. If she runs for president, we’ll hear her apologies more than her ideas. How many more damning documents exist?
I believe Warren has an important role to play in American history. Maybe it’s not the one she really wants, but it’s the one we need. She should spare us this humiliating spectacle and continue to lead from the Senate.