Time to end racial roulette

Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Senate candidate, claims Cherokee ancestry.
Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Senate candidate, claims Cherokee ancestry.
Posted: May 20, 2012

In the earliest iteration of the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws, people with three or four Jewish grandparents were classified as Jews and stripped of their livelihoods and property. Individuals with one or two Jewish grandparents were deemed to be “crossbreeds” who were entitled, under certain conditions, to less discriminatory treatment.

Terrible? Of course. But recent events have demonstrated that America’s academic community operates under an even more precise and exacting racial code.

Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren teaches at Harvard Law School and taught law at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite her blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin, wide nose, and overall WASPish appearance, these institutions have quite improbably touted her as a Native American faculty member. The basis of this puzzling racial classification is her unsubstantiated claim that her great-great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian.

Assuming her dubious claim to be true, if you do the generational math, that would make Warren 1/32 Native American. Apparently, under academia’s thorough, far-reaching, and rigorous system of racial categorization, that smidgen of Native American blood permits her to claim the same racial and cultural heritage as a full-fledged member of the Cherokee Nation.

Critics ranging from the Atlantic magazine to ABC News to Northwestern University have faulted Warren’s academic work as poor, suspect, “deeply flawed,” and unworthy of an institution like Harvard. Could this mean that her position on the Harvard faculty is attributable in some significant measure to the law school’s quest for the holy grail of diversity? Can there be any doubt that recruiting such a “woman of color” would be a feather in the cap of any school’s diversity outreach coordinator?

Now you may wonder how someone who is only 1/32 Cherokee and looks like a fugitive from a Chestnut Hill garden club could possibly add to Harvard’s tapestry of racial and cultural heterogeneity. Clearly she does not, but there is a larger, overriding reason for hiring her.

You see, the major forces animating diversity programs are white guilt and a need to atone for the wrongs inflicted by whites on suffering minorities. To those who subscribe to such orthodoxy, Warren’s preferential treatment makes perfect sense and is particularly appropriate since her claimed ancestor belonged to the long-suffering Cherokees who, in the early 19th century, were force-marched by the Army from their ancestral lands in Tennessee and Georgia to Oklahoma. It was on this infamous Trail of Tears that Cherokee men, women, and children starved, suffered, and died as they were driven like cattle to their new reservation half a continent away.

In expiation for this and similar outrages, Harvard now extends a helping hand to Warren, however anemic and tenuous her tribal ties may be. It makes them feel better about sitting on all that endowment money generated by the white oppressors of yesteryear.

But Warren’s academic career and the cause of social justice may have hit an embarrassing snag. For genealogists have documented that the husband of her purported Cherokee forbear was a member of the Tennessee militia that rounded up the Cherokees and imprisoned them in a concentration camp preparatory to their cross-country death march.

If Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather helped with the forced relocation of the Cherokees, what effect should that have on her academic career? If she received preferential treatment for being 1/32 Cherokee, by the same logic shouldn’t she be penalized for being a 1/32 descendant of some hillbilly storm trooper? Consistent application of the perplexing rules of this ancestor-driven, race-based spoils system would seem to dictate that result.

But where does all this end? How far up the family tree should we look before deciding who wins and who loses at this game of racial roulette? The Nazis looked no further than a person’s grandparents. But in modern America’s complex and arcane system of race-based rewards, there seems to be no limit to how far back the vetting process can go. Warren’s case most assuredly makes that point.

Sadly, for everyone granted race-based preferential treatment, there is at least one competitor who is put at a disadvantage for not possessing the preferred ancestry. How can that be fair? And how can such an arbitrary practice avoid embittering the disadvantaged?

After years of corrosively dividing society on racial lines, why should we as a society continue to tolerate this system of preferences? Isn’t it past time that our universities — as well as our government and other institutions — treat all of us equally and on the basis of our characters and achievements, and not on the color of our skins or ancestry?

George Parry is a former state and federal prosecutor practicing law in Philadelphia. E-mail George Parry at LGParry@dpt-law.

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