Monday, June 11, 2012

An Open Letter to Fellow Native Harvard Alumni and Proponents of Educational Diversity Initiatives: Denounce Elizabeth Warren and HLS

As a proudly enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma; 1981 alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education; veteran scholastic administrator; and lifelong Democrat, I am profoundly disturbed by the emergence of recent details concerning Harvard and one of its Law School’s senior faculty members, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. Over the course of the past month, a stream of facts have come to attention that leave little doubt that the HLS bureaucracy and Professor Warren perpetrated nothing less than ethnic fraud. The development of this saga has elicited a disappointing response from all parties involved and reflects not just a single offense of intellectual dishonesty but, rather, a broader and systemic racial masquerade rooted in egregious insensitivity. Media commentary from both polarities of the ideological spectrum has failed to adequately articulate the deeply troubling implications involved in the extended exercise in deceit in which Harvard Law and one of its most prominent contemporary staffers have engaged for over a decade. I urge fellow Native alumni of Harvard's various schools; all American Indians presently and formerly associated with the University, whether as faculty or students; and every proponent of educational diversity initiatives to denounce the conduct of HLS and Professor Warren.

Among the values championed by contemporary progressivism, the benevolence of diversity remains one of the most sacrosanct. Anyone who has enjoyed the opportunity to matriculate at an institution like our alma mater understands that a heterogeneous student population fosters enrichment, and that interactions with those from disparate walks of life can precipitate an expansion of personal philosophy. To wit: Oklahoma native (not to be confused with "Native") ElizabethWarren is “proud” of her indigenous heritage; so proud, in fact, that she self-identified as a minority in directories published by the Association of America Law Schools from 1986 to 1995 and in Harvard diversity statistics intended to comply with federal mandates, but never once alluded to her Cherokee and Delaware lineage on the Senate campaign trail until those very claims to ancestry elicited an avalanche of scrutiny. The spectacle that has since engulfed the contest between the liberal folk heroine and Senator Scott Brown illuminates a willful perversion and debasement of equal opportunity ideals, as well as a chance to see elements of critical race theory writ large.

Of course, abstractions favor the Warren camp. After all, what standards can arbitrate cultural authenticity? To parse the politics of self-determination is, at cursory glance, a presumptuous business at best, and Charles Fried, the faculty member who recruited Warren to Harvard, contends that claims to minority status played no part in her hiring.

Ultimately, however, whether the Professor formally obtained her employment in Cambridge thanks to affirmative action is immaterial. An unethical endeavor does not have to succeed in its objectives in order to warrant objection. Similarly, the question of qualification constitutes nothing more than deflection because ability does not invariably prohibit malfeasance. To refer to an athletic analogy, one needs only to refer to recent history to realize that it is possible to possess all the necessary skills to yield a desired outcome, and yet still engage in a perspicaciously questionable pursuit of said outcome. Tonya Harding was a formidable contender for Olympic gold long before she arranged the Nancy Kerrigan kneecap-crowbar introduction; in fact, it is reasonable to deduce that it was Harding's proximity to victory that inspired her to undertake such clearly immoral measures.

Many followers of this issue have expressed bewilderment regarding the relevance ofWarren’s Cherokee heritage or lack thereof to the considerable societal problems afflicting Massachusetts and the nation as a whole. However, Professor Warren has predicated her bid for elected office on an advocacy for the disenfranchised working and middle classes, the proverbial “99 percent.” Consequently, her conduct vis-à-vis one of the most historically marginalized minority communities in the country, the Native population, is fundamentally pertinent to the ideological consistency of her campaign platform. And how can she productively represent a populace with which she is presently refusing to engage?

Despite initial reports by news outlets that a marriage certificate discovered by New England genealogists pointed to a Cherokee great-great-great grandmother, both the Boston Globe and the New England Historic and Genealogical Society recently conceded that no proof has been discovered to substantiate the existence of that document. Additionally, ReJeania Zmek, the Logan County Clerk, explained that Oklahoma only began maintaining marriage applications around 1950, the year after Warren herself was born.

Although the academic originally asserted that she never advertised her theoretical American Indian ties to Harvard (only to subsequently admit that she had, in fact, shared the rumors of her heritage, but post-hiring) , the school bureaucracy was evidently familiar with her ostensible background by 1996-1998, when Harvard Law spokesman Mike Chimura referred to Warren as a Native American in separate articles about women and minority HLS faculty members published by the Harvard Crimson and the Fordham Law Review. When queried in late April, Warren contended that she had been unaware of Chimura’s promotion of her hypothetical lineage, but declared that she was“proud” of her roots. In essence, then, she is effectively endorsing Harvard’s decision to publicize her as a representation of diversity, and is thus directly contributing to the perpetuation of environmental homogeneity and an institutionalized strain of racial posturing. 

On May 25, the Boston Globe reported:

for at least six straight years during Warren’s tenure, Harvard University reported in federally mandated diversity statistics that it had a Native American woman in its senior ranks at the law school. According to both Harvard officials and federal guidelines, those statistics are almost always based on the way employees describe themselves.
In addition, both Harvard’s guidelines and federal regulations for the statistics lay out a specific definition of Native American that Warren does not meet.

The article also notes that Harvard Law claimed a single Native American professor in a 2011 diversity survey based on ethnic self-identification.

What’s so confounding about the cringe-worthy efforts of the Warren camp to deflect attention from these realities is that a consideration of the mainstream progressive ethos she publicly embraces fails to support her actions. Rather, the central question here is one of intent: why did Professor Warren list herself as a minority in the AALS directories and in federal compliance paperwork when the implicit purpose of the opportunity to ethnically self-identify in a professional context is a function of equal opportunity aspirations? If we lived in a color-blind America, questions of race would not appear on scholastic and employment paperwork because they would be irrelevant; as it is, their presence is not an invitation for entertainment and networking. A seasoned veteran of academia in her late thirties would presumably recognize as much.

If one proceeds from the premise that the objective of affirmative action is to promote mosaics of perspective as didactic apparatuses in and of themselves, then Warren is not an individual who can refer to a personal history defined by either Native culture or Native genetics. It is wonderful that her "family lore" aspires to inclusiveness with its nods to "high cheekbones" ("like all the Indians do"; it's difficult to imagine the President, who devoted the space of an entire book to contemplating the influence of biracial roots on the development of his personal philosophy, summarizing his experience as an African-American man by issuing a generalization about a stereotypical and reductive physical feature), but to argue that such vaguely defined allusions are of similar value in shaping a unique world view as regular exposure to and celebration of specific constellations of custom, doctrine, and ideology, would be patently false. And if white privilege exists, as numerous proponents of liberalism contend, then it has to be aesthetic as well as cultural. Ergo, a mathematical analysis ofWarren’s racial composition or documentation of her phantom Cherokee relations are unnecessary in light of her identity as a woman of superficially Anglo features who has an admittedly tenuous acquaintance with what minority background she might have because it consequently stands to reason that Warren's experience has, by and large, been that of a Caucasian female American. And so the professor's motivation in emphasizing a claim to Native lineage becomes a central issue in regard to her credibility. Remember, she herself only deployed the 1/32 fabrication as a defense once the NEHGS attested to the evidentiary support of the mythical matrimonial document, so she has operated froman even less stable pretext in assuming the mantle of a minority for the past twenty-five years.

A not insignificant number of her defenders have attempted to double down by maintaining that most Oklahomans likely have at least a minute amount of Indian DNA. What a poetic illustration of the legacy of colonialism: first, the European appropriation of Native territories, and, now, white entitlement to Native cultural identity sans the conditions that confer meaning on that identity. In this respect, Warren has arguably serendipitously benefited from pervasive misconceptions about Indians and the propensity of mainstream America to romanticize them. Perhaps as a result of white guilt, it is an acceptable, even trendy, practice among stalwart Warren supporters in Internet forum dialogues to sympathetically recall their own ambiguous tales of indigenous ancestors and then to admit that they themselves have no proof but muddied familial oral narratives. After all, anyone who has listened to their aunt wax envious about cheekbones can’t be ignorant about the nuances informing tribal politics, ceremonies, and traditions, or about the unique obstacles with which many Natives grapple each day: third-world living standards on reservations; endemic alcoholism and poverty; a situational dearth of legal recourse due to jurisdictional complexities; an absence of opportunity for educational or economic betterment.

Presumably, HLS trusts the adults it employs to accurately represent themselves on federally required forms, and, ultimately, Warren may have never directly profited from her fictions in a workplace capacity, but it is quickly becoming undeniable that she facilitated a repeated and deliberate corruption of equal opportunity ideals and an intellectually predatory violation of the United States’ most systematically abused community.

Perhaps, in the end, we should appreciate Professor Warren for revealing deficiencies in Cambridge that may have otherwise remained unexamined. However, we should nevertheless hold her accountable for the damage she has wrought —by either crassly capitalizing on the plight of the American Indian or indulging in the fetishization of a frequently caricaturized minority group. I ask my fellow Native alumni of Harvard, as well as the University’s current Native students and staff, to join myself and my son, similarly a proud Kiowa and a past participant in Native Americans at Dartmouth who co-authors this appeal, in asking Warren to reply to requests (thus far rebuffed) from Native media outlets for transparency so that a public dialogue regarding this issue can yield positive results. Because when the Professor disingenuously dismisses valid concerns about her behavior as attacks against her family (and her supporters, like Massachusetts Democratic Party Communications Director Kevin Franck, patronizingly deny any agency to the indigenous individuals opposing Warren's reaction to this story by characterizing them as either dimwittedly inadvertent or cravenly self-exploitative handmaidens of the GOP); stonewalls against the Indian news apparatus; and continues to maximize her charade by declaring that she would be the first Senator from Massachusetts with a Native background, she demeans the bravery of our Native forebears who fought so valiantly to resist assimilation and to preserve our various ways of life.

- Margo (Kickingbird) DeLaune, Ed.M., Harvard Graduate School of Education '81
   Cole R. DeLaune, Dartmouth '08
    Atlanta, Georgia