What is a Minority?

As I did recently with the HOV lane story, I am going local today (though, like the HOV story, this story has bigger implications than in just my home state). In this post, we turn to Elizabeth Warren and the Massachusetts Senate race. For those unfamiliar with Mrs. Warren, she is a Harvard professor who helped the Obama administration get the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau off the ground and is currently in a heated battle with incumbent Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy's old seat.

Warren has been receiving some unfavorable press recently as the Boston Herald has been reporting (and opining) on her use of the 'minority' designation on professorial job applications and in legal directories dating back to the 1980's. She has claimed that she had done so due to her Native American heritage and a desire to find people with similar backgrounds. Because she looks like she could have just walked off of an Air France flight at most of her appearances, some people have questioned this explanation and used her use of the minority label as an unfavorable proxy for her general honesty and integrity.

In addition to raising issues on her honesty, this story has also brought the question of what a minority is into the spotlight (again). This is an issue that hits very close to home for your humble scribe as, by most family accounts, I have at least as much Native American blood as the 1/32nd Mrs. Warren claims. That I have never marked this on an application for a job, or college, or law school is a personal choice. I have never faced persecution due to my heritage, nor is it something that I have particularly embraced; respected, yes. Considered, clearly. However being part Chippewa is not something that has impacted me, negatively by status, or positively by choice, any more than being part English, Canadian, Polish or Russian.

However, as noted, that is a personal choice, and I don't think that Mrs. Warren should be knocked for it if she made an alternative choice in good faith. Of course that is what voters will need to decide. Is it really that she was searching for an affinity as she has claimed, or was she trying to game the system. If the former, she cuts a sympathetic picture as those searching for their past in a maze of old church and village documents and half-completed family trees (myself included) often do.

If the latter, it is an example of the lowest kind of sneakery. Whether or not one agrees with affirmative action in the abstract or in practice, it is clear that its intent is to make up for historic injustices and imbalances between whites and minorities in this country. Taking advantage of that system after never having swallowed the bitter pill of true discrimination would be particularly odious, even for a politician.

So, what do I hope is the outcome of this situation? Though of course only one person will ever know for sure, I hope that Mrs. Warren is telling the truth about her intentions. And I truly hope that this election comes down to the issues. Unlike many across the country, this is a race with candidates who boast established records in public life and exhibit markedly different attitudes to issues and institutions, particularly Corporate America. Let it come down to Brown's voting record or Warren's time putting the banks in line. Let it come down to Warren's populist pleas that GE doesn't pay any taxes. There is enough between these candidates that it doesn't need to come down to 'Cherokee-Gate.'

Finally, while Warren's past choices are certainly fair game if voters decide they are a matter of integrity, what I hope is that this doesn't become is a referendum on what 'minority' is or should mean. That will be a complicated enough issue in about 30 years...

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