Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren announced this morning that she is forming a presidential exploratory committee, essentially making her the first Democrat to throw her hat in the ring for 2020. While this move is not surprising to anyone who’s watch the senator over the last few months, not to mention the last several years, her run up to a presidential campaign seemed to suffer significant setback earlier this year when, in response to Donald Trump‘s many racist taunts aimed at Warren over her purported Native American heritage, Warren released the results of a DNA ancestry test she had taken in an attempt to prove that her previous claims of such heritage were in fact valid. The aftermath of this move was, well, let’s just say it rhymed with “fit show”
Warren’s move was widely seen as backfiring, angering members of various Native American communities who thought that this was a publicity stunt that trivialized and misrepresented their identity and heritage and dismayed even Warren supporters who contended that she had played into Donald Trump’s hands. Beyond the specific questions of whether or not this was a politically savvy or foolish move, Warren’s story and identity highlight the very complicated issues of race and identity that exist in America today, complicated issues that we as a country will surely debate in a sober and thoughtful fashion during this election and not argue inanely over Twitter, right?
As author Ta-Nehisi Coates reportedly stated “The phrase ‘race is a social construct’ is clunky and cliché. It’s also true.” Not only is race, like other aspects of identity, socially constructed in America; it’s also constructed very poorly and inconsistently. What it means to be a member of a “race” in this country often depends on which race you’re talking about, and the definitions, rules and criteria have been developed haphazardly and piecemeal over long historical processes.
Since the establishment of the original colonies in America, the first racial question in America was that between whites and Native Americans, those mistakenly labeled as “Indian.” Later, as the institution of slavery grew in prominence and important within America, and as the Native American population was decimated by disease and violence and marginalized to frontier lands and reservations, the primary divide became white and black. Even though “white “became the default category for American identity, the distinguishing features and characteristics or rules between being white and another race differed for Native Americans and for blacks. It became widely accepted that one could have some Native American heritage and still be considered white; sometime this heritage would even be seen as a source of pride, granting some connection to the land or stereotypical survival skills or similar personality characteristics, or just a vague exoticism. Many African Americans have also subscribed to this idea, often claiming Native American heritage when in fact, as Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (who’s Finding Your Roots show utilizes the 23andMe DNA ancestry tests) has pointed out many times, very few black Americans have actually been demonstrated to have such heritage using the types of DNA testing that Elizabeth Warren underwent recently.
By contrast to the acceptability, even desirability of Native American ancestry, in order to protect the institution of slavery and the near or total dehumanization of blacks that was necessitated by such a system, America adopted, although never formalized on a national scale, the so-called one drop rule, whereby any African heritage categorized someone as black or otherwise ‘not white’ (categories such as mulatto, quadroon or octoroon occasionally being used depending on the percentage of African heritage present).
As America became older and immigration began to make the county more diverse, new racial categories were added to the American political and social system, as depicted on the evolving U.S. Census forms distributed every 10 years. Looking at the categories on the census, most of these “races” actually conform to nationalities: Chinese Japanese etc., or even in one case to religion masquerading as a race, as immigrants from India were initially labeled as “Hindu” (in part because the label “Indian” had of course already been taken).
Some of the racial categories that we think of today are fairly recent in origin: for example the umbrella term Asian American was coined in the late 1960s by then Berkeley students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee. Further complicating things of course are questions of ethnicity, such as Latino/a/x, which is categorized separately from race in official documents but with shares a similar function in practice.
The last few presidential elections have provided the opportunities to have honest discussions about race, although the reality has rarely lived up to the hope. Barack Obama’s election as the country’s first black president raised questions of whether the state of black America had changed, whether America had entered a post-racial era, and even whether America’s growing biracial and multiracial population had altered categorizations like the one drop rule (Obama, for his part, self-identifies as black but not white, despite his upbringing with his white mother forming a large part of his history and upbringing).
Donald Trump, by contrast, helped mobilize and embolden various white nationalist [read: racist] groups eager to return to an earlier era that they consider “great,” (Trump’s own idiosyncratic views on race notwithstanding) In recent years, Warren’s heritage controversy and Trump’s Pocahontas slur are sadly among the most significant moments of national attention that American politics has paid to the Native American communities in a long time. While Warren’s campaign could launch a real conversation on race, ethnicity, heritage and identity (indeed, her announcement video makes several references or allusions to racial inequality), her publicity stunts and President Trump’s Twitter tirades (countdown to his first tweet on Warren’s run) make such a possibility murky at best. For my own sanity and survival, I will remain optimistic but not hold my breath.