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The Media Is Blowing Its Coverage of Warren’s Native American Claim

There is a real controversy here—just not the one that conservatives see.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The Iowa caucuses are still more than a year away. The first Democratic primary debate won’t occur until this June. But some journalists are already declaring that one of the party’s 2020 frontrunners, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, is in serious trouble.

After it was revealed recently that Warren had listed her race as “American Indian” on a State Bar of Texas registration card 33 years ago, The Washington Post commented that the “matter now threatens to overshadow the image Warren has sought to foster of a truth-telling consumer advocate who would campaign for the White House as a champion for the working class. Instead, she is now seeking to combat the portrait of someone who for years was insufficiently sensitive to a long-oppressed minority.” The New York Times’s Peter Baker seemed to concur on Twitter, and MSNBC’s Brian Williams devoted nearly ten minutes of his show to the controversy, declaring that it “follows and looms over her candidacy.”

Warren’s handling of the controversy—particularly her decision to take a DNA test to prove distant Native American ancestry—has been seriously flawed, and is worthy of coverage. But that’s not what’s looming over her presidential campaign. Instead, many in the media are giving the same credence to Republican attacks that they did in 2016, when Hillary Clinton faced “lock her up” chants for her use of a private email server, and 2008, when Barack Obama was forced time and again to prove he was born in Hawaii, not Kenya. (It is no coincidence that Donald Trump has been the leading instigator in all three cases.)

Questions about Warren’s Native American heritage—and whether or not she used those claims to advance her career—have dogged her since 2012. That year, Republican investigators found stories in the Harvard Crimson touting diversity among Harvard Law School faculty that referred to Warren as a Native American. Her ethnicity was also listed as “Native American” at the University of Pennsylvania, where Warren taught before joining Harvard. Trump has ridiculed her for years by referring to her as “Pocahontas.”

Conservatives have obsessed over Warren’s Native American claim because it allows them to attack two foes at once. They’re using it not only to discredit Warren herself—an accomplished intellectual with an impressive academic and political career—but also the very legitimacy of affirmative action. The idea is that Warren only got ahead in the professional world by fraudulently taking advantage of a liberal policy.

“Why would Warren pretend to be an American Indian in the 1980s if later she downplayed the matter as a misunderstanding based on family lore?” James J. Robbins wrote in USA Today on Thursday. “Fairly obviously it was for career advancement. Despite the current leftist mania to call out supposed ‘white privilege,’ the fact is that even in the 1980s minority status could confer distinct advantages in hiring and promotion in career fields dominated by liberals for whom affirmative action is an article of faith.”

And yet, there’s no evidence that Warren claimed minority status for preferential treatment. She has been remarkably consistent about her background. While she never belonged to any of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, she has always described her mother as “part Cherokee” and said she learned of this heritage through her family’s oral tradition. The most recent iteration of the scandal, involving Warren’s Texas bar card, supports this. The information on that card was private; Warren would not gain any advantage from listing herself as Native American. Even the aforementioned Post story eventually gets around to that truth, albeit not until the eighteenth paragraph:

There’s no indication that Warren gained professionally by reporting herself as Native American on the card. Above the lines for race, national origin and handicap status, the card says, “The following information is for statistical purposes only and will not be disclosed to any person or organization without the express written consent of the attorney.”

There is a scandal here, it’s just not the one the right—and, too often, the mainstream media—is talking about. In October, Warren released the results of a DNA test that showed “strong evidence,” a geneticist said, of Native American ancestry “6-10 generations ago.” She was rightly criticized for doing so. As The New York Times’s Astead Herndon reported two months later, the move “troubled advocates of racial equality and justice, who say her attempt to document ethnicity with a DNA test gave validity to the idea that race is determined by blood—a bedrock principle for white supremacists and others who believe in racial hierarchies.”

Warren, to her credit, has apologized for the DNA test. But the story continues to roll on. Despite admitting several times that Warren never received any advantages from identifying as Native American—the core of the right’s argument against her—CNN nevertheless declared that “Elizabeth Warren’s Native Problem just got even worse” after the Texas bar story dropped. But that revelation didn’t change what we already knew. All it did was give the media yet another reason to assert that her Native American claim is haunting her presidential campaign.

This is precisely why the right has latched onto this story, knowing full well that the mainstream media feels compelled to cover any sustained political frenzy, no matter how disproportionate or phony the allegations may be. The Native American claim is the perfect vehicle for conservatives to undermine a female Ivory Tower academic who is a persistent and effective critic of crony capitalism, and to expose affirmative action as a liberal plot to discriminate against white men and eliminate meritocracy in America. These attacks, particularly Trump’s vile “Pocahontas” label, seek to mark Warren as an outsider—a line that is not dissimilar to the “birther” smear against Obama that became the foundation of Trump’s political career.  

That this “scandal” overshadows Warren’s policy ideas—such as her recent “wealth tax” proposal—is exactly the point. Instead, breathless coverage is given to every twist and turn of this saga: It’s become a self-sustaining cycle, the culmination of years of pathological dedication from the right. That’s troubling, especially given the stakes in 2020. During the last presidential election, the media gave similarly breathless coverage to every twist and turn of the Clinton email saga, and seemed unable to discern the meaningful aspects of that story from the irrelevant details. It may well have cost her the election. Warren, and Democrats broadly, have reason to fear a repeat of that fate.