Was it right for Elizabeth Warren to identify as a minority? Will voters care?

A genealogist is supporting Elizabeth Warren's claim of Cherokee ancestry. But what could linger with voters is whether it's right for someone who is 1/32 native American to claim minority status.

Steven Senne/AP
Democratic candidate for Senate Elizabeth Warren faces reporters during a campaign stop at a diner in Shrewsbury, Mass., Sunday, April 29, as Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts looks on.

In the already intense US Senate race in Massachusetts, a new issue has emerged: Did Democratic hopeful Elizabeth Warren, who claims partial native American ancestry, improperly present herself as a minority to further her academic career?

Ms. Warren's campaign says her Republican rival, incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, is trying to create an issue where none exists.

On Monday, a Massachusetts genealogist entered the fray by citing a century-old document that, if correct, would show Warren to be 1/32 Cherokee in ancestry. That would confirm her statements that, as a youth, she heard relatives discuss ancestral links to Cherokee and Delaware Indians.

It would not necessarily close the matter as an issue in the Senate campaign, however.

Questions would remain, and potentially would resonate with voters, about whether it was appropriate for her to list herself as a minority when her connection to native American identity appears to be so small.

"You don't need to take a DNA test to know that in America, Elizabeth Warren is viewed and treated as a white woman, with all its benefits," commented Jamarhl Crawford, publisher of the Blackstonian, a news organization serving blacks in Boston.

Warren has said she could not recall ever listing native American background when applying for college or a job, the Boston Herald reported Saturday. The paper said Warren also commented that she didn't have a problem with Harvard Law School citing her background as part of its faculty diversity, but that she didn’t know until recently that the school had counted her as a minority.

The Brown campaign has been seeking to define Warren as a liberal ideologue, with views more in sync with "Occupy Wall Street" than with mainstream voters. This issue could play into that narrative, if it appears that Warren sought to use a liberal orthodoxy (affirmative action) to promote her own career.

And, regardless of the political stakes, the to-and-fro in recent days points to an interesting question of defining identity.

"The discovery of a great-great-great-grandmother does raise the question of when it becomes unseemly, if not outright deceptive, for someone to claim minority status – especially in a profession where ethnic preferences in hiring and promotions are routinely observed," blogger Vincent Carroll wrote Tuesday for the Denver Post.

He said Warren may land on the spectrum somewhere in between two Colorado figures who became nationally known. One is former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who passed himself off as native American with, in Mr. Carroll's words, "no credible basis." The other is former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, "who was three-eighths Northern Cheyenne, [and] proudly touted his Indian ancestry during his tenure in Congress."

Warren's campaign released statements from officials at the universities where she has worked, stating that her purported minority status had nothing to do with decisions to hire her. Those institutions are the University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania, the University of Houston Law Center, and most recently Harvard Law School.

Former Harvard Law Dean Robert Clark, who held that post when Warren was hired in the early 1990s, said "her native American heritage was not a factor in the discussion or the decision."

But the Boston Herald reported that Warren listed herself as a minority from 1986 to 1995, in the Association of American Law Schools' annual directory.

And at least to some degree, Harvard Law School itself claimed Warren as a minority member of its faculty. In the mid-1990s, the Harvard Crimson quoted a school spokesman touting the faculty's diversity, including a reference to one native American (Warren). Another Crimson story called Warren the first woman with a minority background to receive tenure at the school, the Boston Globe reported.

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