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Elizabeth Warren should have checked her privilege

Credit: Win McNamee / Getty

October 19, 2018   3 mins

A few years ago, I found out I was one-eighth German. I took it in good humour – though I’m not sure if I’m German enough to be allowed to joke about my ancestry. What is the threshold at which one acquires the privilege of national self-deprecation? Does it vary according to nationality? Perhaps a committee could draw up some guidelines.

Ethnicity tests of a different kind have been in the news this week, thanks to the latest twist in the Elizabeth Warren heritage saga. The US senator (and possible Presidential candidate) has already been roundly mocked for her claims of Native American ancestry. Donald Trump, never one not to twist the knife, has called her “fake Pocahontas” – suggesting she should take a DNA test to prove her claims. Well, it turns out she has and this week she released the results.

This is how Annie Linskey of the Boston Globe reported the story:

“The analysis of Warren’s DNA was done by Carlos D. Bustamante, a Stanford University professor and expert in the field who won a 2010 MacArthur fellowship, also known as a genius grant, for his work on tracking population migration via DNA analysis…

“Bustamante calculated that Warren’s pure Native American ancestor appears in her family tree ‘in the range of 6-10 generations ago’.” 

Vindication, at last? Well, it’s complicated:

“But the generational range based on the ancestor that the report identified suggests she’s between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American. The report notes there could be missed ancestors.”

And it gets even more complicated:

“Detecting DNA for Native Americans is particularly tricky because there is an absence of Native American DNA available for comparison. This is in part because Native American leaders have asked tribal members not to participate in genetic databases…

“To make up for the dearth of Native American DNA, Bustamante used samples from Mexico, Peru, and Colombia to stand in for Native American.”

Therefore, the genetic evidence for the specific claim of Cherokee ancestry is not exactly overwhelming.

Furthermore, the Cherokee nation has made its position abundantly clear:

“Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

Despite my own heritage, I don’t think this an occasion for schadenfreude. Family traditions have a way of exaggerating some things while conveniently forgetting others. Indeed, the dynamics of the myth-making are often more interesting than the tales themselves. I wouldn’t judge anyone too harshly for holding on to a family legend.

The real problem is that Warren has missed an opportunity. She could have used her own experience as a ‘teachable moment’ – a small example of the way in which an obsession with identity can distort politics and sow division. She could have emphasised that while it is good for Americans to be proud of their diversity, the things that unite America are more important than the differences. She could have added that the vital fight against discrimination must never become a competition for advantage or a nursing of resentment against entire groups of people, irrespective of who they are or what they’ve done as individuals.

Instead, she took a DNA test.

Of course, she’s not alone. The growing popularity of commercial DNA-testing services is a minor, if telling, aspect of our preoccupation with human ‘labels’. For instance, one such company has even teamed up with a music streaming site to provide playlists based on ancestry – or as the company puts it: “if you could listen to your DNA what would it sound like?” Presumably, my chromosomes are vibrating to the jolly strains of an Oom-pah band.

Obviously, the music-for-your-genes thing is meant as a bit of fun. And as for ancestry tests in general, they’re harmless if all they’re doing is satisfying a natural curiosity about our roots. What is less harmless, however, is serious politics being conducted on the basis of claims and counter-claims as to the ethnic identity of a distant ancestor. After all, the historical precedents are not encouraging.

Elizabeth Warren is a brave and brilliant foe of crony capitalism. I only wish she had as clear a view of the identity politics chewing-up our culture.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago

The photo attached to the essay is a wee-bit hyperbolic wouldn’t you say?