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Elizabeth Warren: I wasn't an affirmative-action hire

May 31, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Eliabeth Warren at a campaign stop with Rep. Jim McGovern(D-Mass.).
Eliabeth Warren at a campaign stop with Rep. Jim McGovern(D-Mass.). (Steven Senne / Associated…)

Elizabeth Warren, the consumer advocate and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, has now acknowledged that she told her employers at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania about her “Native American heritage.”  But she insisted in a statement released Wednesday night that those who hired her to teach at the Harvard and University of Pennsylvania law schools  “have said unequivocally they were not aware of my heritage and that it played no role in my hiring.”

Query (as they say in law school) whether this statement helps Warren.

Warren seems to be saying that her “heritage” -- 1/32nd Cherokee, pending a cheek-swab DNA test -- was worth mentioning to her employers (and noting in a national directory of law professors) after she was hired but not before. But why? The implication is that there would have been something unfair about advertising her ancestry in an application or job interview.

Is that because it’s so meager? Or because Warren shares the conservative view that it’s wrong for employers and admissions committees to consider race and ethnicity as “one factor” for purposes of diversity? Surely a liberal Democrat isn’t going to take the latter position, but Warren’s insistence that she got her appointments on merit plays to affirmative-action opponents. If her Native American heritage was an important part of her worldview, why would it have been wrong for Harvard to take it into account?

Conservatives have had a lot of fun with Warren’s alleged ancestry, suggesting  that her claim to Native American genes discredits affirmative action, either because it shows that racial preferences can be gamed or because it dramatizes the silliness of racial classifications (a point made by Charlotte Allen in a snarky Times Op-Ed article).  Of course, other conservatives -- so-called race realists -- are obsessed with the idea of behavioral differences between races and ethnic groups.

So what is the proper takeaway from the Warren flap? That employers and admissions committees should be resolutely color- and ethnicity-blind? I don’t think so. Warren may be an inauthentic example of the phenomenon, but the fact is that race and ethnicity (and gender) are proxies for different life experiences that in the aggregate can contribute to an enhanced educational experience.

That’s the “diversity” argument for affirmative action (not to be confused with the rationale that racial preferences compensate for the effects of past discrimination).  Love it or hate it, it doesn’t stand or fall on the quirky case of Elizabeth Warren.

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Warren not alone in ancestry claim

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