Imagine, if you will, that right after the Herald first reported that a spokesman for Harvard had, in 1996, identified Elizabeth Warren as Native American, she had released a statement along the following lines:
Like many kids who were born and raised in Oklahoma, I grew up thinking that I was part Native American. I can’t prove it the way I would prove a case in court, but my mother and grandmother told me that it was true. I believed them then, and I believe them now. It has been part of my family’s story for as long as I can remember.
It never occurred to me that my heritage might translate into some sort of “advantage” for me. For example, I did not note my heritage on my applications to college or law school, nor have I ever portrayed myself as Native American when applying for jobs. I believe that I have always been employed based on the quality of my work, and the record fully supports my belief. With respect to my employment at Harvard, the subject of my heritage simply never came up during the many employment-related conversations I had over several years with various members of the Harvard Law School faculty, student body, and administration. I never raised it, nor did any of them.
In 1986, while I was teaching at the University of Texas Law School, I began to self-identify as part Native American in a directory of legal academics known as the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) desk book. I did so because (a) I believed it to be true, based on what my family had told me, and (b) I thought that students and other faculty members might find the information to be of interest. A number of years later, however, as I learned more about the issues surrounding minority women on law school faculties, I stopped doing so. I concluded that, as my own Native American heritage was fairly distant and was based on family lore, my AALS listing seemed out of place with those of women (and men) whose lives had been more directly affected by discrimination and other contemporary issues relating to minority communities.
Of course, I have no control over what spokespeople for Harvard say, and questions about statements by them should be directed to the appropriate offices at Harvard. I would simply note that, at the time I was offered tenure at Harvard but rejected it in 1993, and at the time I accepted it in 1995, there is no record of Harvard or anyone else referring to my heritage. Especially given the intense scrutiny Harvard Law School was under at that time regarding the lack of minority women on its faculty, it is inconceivable that, had I been thought to be a “minority woman,” there would have been no public statement to that effect at the time I became a tenured member of the faculty. Yet the earliest such statement of which I am aware – the one reported by the Boston Herald – dates from October of 1996, over a year later.
Would that have ended the story? Probably, I’d say – in any event, it strikes me as a near certainty that there would have been nothing like the media frenzy we’ve seen over the last few weeks. If that’s the case, then this whole sorry episode says a great deal more about the peculiar relationship between campaign operations and the media than it does about anything else.