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Elizabeth Warren and Cherokee heritage: what is known about allegations

Sen. Scott Brown is bringing up the allegation that Senate-race rival Elizabeth Warren sought to benefit as a law professor by claiming Cherokee heritage. Several questions remain unanswered.

By Staff writer / September 26, 2012

Democratic US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren waves as she speaks at a campaign rally in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood Friday.

Elise Amendola/AP

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A new campaign ad by Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts calls attention to the way that Senate-race rival Elizabeth Warren, during her academic career, listed herself as a racial minority.

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The ad, titled "Who knows?" focuses on whether Ms. Warren sought to parlay unproven claims to native American heritage into career advancement as a law professor.

The two candidates are locked in a tight race. Senator Brown began pressing the issue months ago, after the matter emerged in local news reports. But this week's ad is Brown's first on the issue.

Brown's advertisement shows news footage of reporters talking about Warren's claim to Cherokee ancestry in her Oklahoma family. Then a reporter asks Warren: “Is there anything else that’s going to come out about you that we don’t already know?” The Democrat laughs in response. “You know, I don’t think so, but who knows?”

The ad follows a public debate last week, in which Brown raised the issue face to face with Warren, arguing that serving in the Senate requires passing a test of "character." He said she clearly is not native American – an apparent reference both to her white skin and to a lack of evidence to prove native American ties.

Warren has responded to Brown's ad with her own 30-second video, speaking directly to the camera with this message: "I never asked for and never got any benefit because of my heritage."

A good many voters in the state agree with the view that she didn't benefit. Others disagree, however. And Warren's critics argue the important question is not whether she benefited, but whether career advancement was her motive.

Here is what has come out so far through the political campaigns and through media reports.

1. Warren listed herself as a minority. The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) directory included, as of its 1986-87 edition, a list of "minority law teachers." Warren, then at the University of Texas, was on the list. Moving to the University of Pennsylvania the next year, she continued to be on the minority list through the directory's 1994-95 edition. The later years of her listing coincided with her recruitment by Harvard Law School, initially as a visiting professor. 

2. Harvard was under pressure to diversify its faculty. Warren's listing came at a time when law schools around the country faced pressure from minority advocates to show greater diversity on their faculty, in race as well as gender. In one 1992 incident, students staged a sit-in in the office of the Law School dean to push for greater faculty diversity.

A sign of the times: The AALS list of minority law professors grew from four pages in length in 1986-87 to seven pages by the mid-1990s. 

3. Harvard hired her, and she was viewed as boosting racial diversity. The Boston Herald cited a 1996 Harvard Crimson article in which a law school spokesman listed "one native American" as part of a diverse faculty, a reference to Warren. Similarly, the Crimson in 1998 referred to Warren as "the first woman with a minority background to be tenured" at the law school, the Herald said. 

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