Now that Elizabeth Warren has declared she’s considering a run for president, it’s time for Democrats to put away the Native American DNA story. Republicans will be flogging it for the rest of Warren’s political life. Progressives, the media and Warren’s Democratic rivals need to move on in favor of more consequential issues.
For starters, the controversy is grossly overblown. In September, the Boston Globe, after a months-long investigation reviewing the records of every college teaching job Warren got and interviewing the key players, found that Warren had never represented herself as anything but a white woman.
No university thought it was making an affirmative-action hire (except to the extent that women were grossly underrepresented in law school faculties.) The sole exception was an obscure questionnaire Warren filled out, long after she was a senior professor, mentioning some Native American heritage, but this played no role in her career.
In her 2012 election to the Senate, Warren’s opponent Scott Brown tried to make a big deal of this, repeatedly calling her by a racist epithet. The tactic cut little ice, and Warren concluded the issue would fade.
Then, as she began to consider running for the presidency, a fierce debate ensued in her camp as to whether she should take a DNA test. Eventually, she took the test, which indeed showed that she had some Native American ancestry. But instead of laying the issue to rest, the strategy backfired, offending some Native American leaders who resent white people with no tribal affiliation claiming native background.
That, in turn, set off a media feeding frenzy and a political pile-on, questioning Warren’s political judgment and readiness for prime time. This piece in The New York Times was one of the worst offenders. The new morning line about Warren fed on itself, and commentators began proclaiming that Warren was toast.
But here’s why Democrats should give this issue, and Warren’s obvious tactical error, a rest. Ironically, her DNA gaffe was about race, but Warren is better at threading the needle on race and identity politics than any other Democrat.
Here is Warren at the 2018 Netroots Nation talking about race:
In Trump’s story, the reason why working families keep getting short end of the stick isn’t because of the decisions he and his pals are making in Washington every day. No, according to Trump, the problem is other working people, people who are black, or brown, people born somewhere else. ...
It all adds up to the same thing ― the politics of division. They want us pointing us fingers at each other so that we won’t notice that their hands are in our pockets. That stops here. That stops now. We say, no, you will not divide us.
In contrast, here is California Sen. Kamala Harris at the same event:
If it wasn’t clear before Charlottesville, it is clear now — racism is real in this country, and we need to deal with that. Sexism is real in this country; let’s deal with it. Anti-Semitism, homophobia, trans-phobia are real in this country; let’s deal with it.
Which frame is more effective politics? If Democrats are to win and win as progressives, they need to reframe the “them” versus “us” not as whites versus people of color, but as Wall Street versus everyone else.
In the run-up to 2020, Democrats will be at risk of falling into the Steve Bannon trap. In my August 2017 interview with Bannon, which cost him his White House job, he said he wanted the Democrats to be talking about race and identity politics every day. That could make 2020 a repeat of 2016, where Democrats’ perceived obsession with identity mobilizes people of color ― but mobilizes Trump voters even more.
Despite a lot of talk about America becoming a majority-minority country, in the Midwestern states where Trump beat Clinton, the white working class share of the electorate is upwards of 50 percent of voters. The Democrats need a candidate who can inspire the rainbow and the white working class, someone who can talk about the things that unite working families of all races. Nobody does that better than Warren, and regardless of whether she ends up being the nominee, other Democrats can learn from her.
Warren comes by her bona fides on race justly. For more than a decade before she had any political aspirations, she was battling banks to get them to stop screwing over black homeowners. She grasped that homeownership was a key source of the accumulation of lifetime wealth and that if blacks were denied mortgages this was an economic crime. In a 2004 law review article titled “The Economics of Race: When Making it to the Middle is Not Enough,” Warren explained just how the denial of mortgage credit was destroying the black middle class.
For more than a decade before she had any political aspirations, she was battling banks to get them to stop screwing over black homeowners.
Consider her recent commencement address to December graduates at historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore:
Finally, during the 1960s, redlining was banned. And over the next 25 years or so, black families started building more wealth. The black-white wealth gap began to shrink. And that might have been the end of the story.
But in the 1990s, as more black families were buying homes and building wealth, big banks and sleazy mortgage lenders saw an opportunity. They targeted communities of color for the worst of the worst mortgages. And bank regulators, the guys who are supposed to work for the American people, looked the other way. The results were catastrophic. Black homeownership rates are now lower than they were when housing discrimination was legal. Today, the black-white wealth gap is bigger than it was back in the 1960s. ...
I’m not a person of color. And I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice, or more overt harm, that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin. Rules matter, and our government ― not just individuals within the government, but the government itself ― has systematically discriminated against black people in this country.
Ultimately, subprime mortgages spread far beyond communities of color, and they eventually wrecked our economy. During the crash of 2008, millions of people ― black, white, Latino and Asian ― lost their homes. Millions lost their jobs. Millions lost their savings ― millions, tens of millions, but not the people at the top. The bank CEOs just kept raking in the money.
Two sets of rules: one for the wealthy and the well-connected. And one for everybody else. Two sets of rules: one for white families. And one for everybody else. That’s how a rigged system works. And that’s what we need to change.
So this brings me back to you. Everyone will tell you to work hard. Teachers. Parents. Coaches. And I agree. Under the rules of commencement speakers I am required to say, “Work hard.” And you should.
But I’m here with a bolder message: It’s time to change the rules. Let me say that again for those in the back. Change. The. Rules.
There is a fierce debate about how well Warren’s candidacy will play in the heartland. Will she come across as the woman she is ― the single mom from, as she terms it, the ragged edge of the middle class who made it the hard way from hardscrabble origins in Oklahoma? Or, as her critics like to depict her, as a shrill, preachy, schoolmarmish professor from Harvard?
The voters will decide that ― if the pundits and opportunists from rival campaigns will just shut up. The more they listen to Warren herself and the less they listen to the naysayers, the better she will do.
The Democrats are blessed (or cursed) with an enormous field of candidates for 2020. There are several others who are both talented and progressive. Warren stands out as particularly gifted, both on talking about race and coalition, and at narrating the connection between the stunted-lived experience of regular Americans and the corporate and financial-industry domination of our politics.
Surely, all this outweighs one DNA fumble.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?