May 18, 2012

Box-checking is unethical

No one has shown that Elizabeth Warren used her Native heritage to get a job. But people are speculating on what it would mean if she did.

Warren's claim as Native American opens debate over ethnic ties

By Bill KirkIn Warren's case, questions remain as to whether she used her Native American ancestry to further her career as a law professor. Some critics say she's guilty of what's known as "box-checking," or designating yourself as a Native American in order to be considered a minority in the eyes of future employers or college admissions officers.

It's a charge Warren refutes, saying that she made the designation because she was reaching out to make a connection with people who may have a similar background.

When asked if she took advantage of so-called "box-checking" she said, "I worked hard for every job I got. I was hired because of the work I've done."

Whatever her reason, fraudulent designation of Native American ancestry is frowned upon as unethical, although it doesn't appear to be illegal.

But it should be, says Jim Peters, the executive director of the state Commission on Indian Affairs.

Peters, himself a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, said the practice was common during the heyday of affirmative action, but is less common now. He noted that if Warren was simply trying to assert her connection to her native American roots, that's fine. But if she was using it to gain an advantage on job applications, that's not.

"There should be a law against it," he said. "People have a right to embrace the fact they have Native American in their ancestry. If they have a connection, we don't hold it against them."

But, he added, "It depends on what you want to do with it."

That's precisely what the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color was getting at when they passed a "Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud" last July. The resolution, signed by the presidents of the Hispanic, Asian, Native American and National bar associations, states, among other things, that "fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants."

It goes on to say the phenomenon is "so pervasive, it is commonly understood and referred to within the Native American Community as 'box-checking.'"
Elizabeth Warren Finally Teaches a Lesson on Native Identity

By Rob Capriccioso“It is one thing to claim to have had an Indian somewhere in the family tree, but it is much different to then use that unexplored notion to check a box indicating concrete Native ancestry,” says Robert Warrior, director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I have met people with these kinds of claims this very week, who strongly believe them, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have more work to do to understand their heritage.”

Many American families claim Native ancestry, but have not done the research to back it up, which doesn’t mean they aren’t Native, of course, but for a person in Warren’s position, Indians in the world of academia say it would have been desirable and appropriate for her to learn more about her roots before checking any boxes. “It’s what we ask of our candidates,” says Warrior, a citizen of the Osage Nation, who notes that his program has published an official statement entitled Identity and Academic Integrity. “Too often, we realize, American Indian studies as a field of academic inquiry has failed to live up to its potential at least in part because of the presence of scholars who misrepresent themselves and their ties to the Native world,” the statement reads in part.

While Warren was never a professor of Native studies, Warrior says it is still important for all college programs to be clear and honest about what they are trying to achieve when promoting diversity. In the case of Warren, Harvard was definitely willing to promote her as Native–its spokesman was quoted in the Harvard Crimson in 1996 as calling her American Indian–but it didn’t really seem to think that was important. She wasn’t exploring tribal law in her legal teaching, and she wasn’t doing any research on or writing about Indian topics. What seems clear now is that she was simply being counted by the college as Native to appease critics who have long criticized Harvard Law School for its lack of diversity. “It seems self-serving,” Warrior says. “And it really did nothing to help Native American students, communities, or faculty, if that was the intention.”

Warren must have been thinking about such concerns in the mid-1990s when she decided to stop including herself as a minority in the directories. She told reporters on May 2 that she originally listed herself that way in order to connect with others like her, “people for whom ‘Native American’ is part of their heritage and part of their hearts. There aren’t a lot of people like me in law teaching. And so I just thought I might find some others. That’s evidently not a particularly good use for the directory because it never happened.” That’s why, she says, that she stopped calling herself a minority in the directories after having done so for almost a decade.

Republican detractors say this is proof she was exploiting a pseudo-Native identity to further her career until she reached the pinnacle, and when she no longer needed that “boost” she dropped it. Warren says that’s false. She was qualified for her position, and the Native aspect didn’t play a role in her hiring, she says, which has been backed up by the Harvard officials who hired her.
A Little Bit Indian

By Ross DouthatThe appropriate response to such a tale is probably sympathy rather than scorn. What does deserve scorn, though, is the academic culture in which an extremely distant connection to a Cherokee ancestor ends up being touted by a law school as proof of its commitment to diversity.

A diverse faculty and campus can be a laudable goal. But the point is to build academic communities that actually contain a wide variety of experiences and perspectives, not to wax self-congratulatory because you’ve met a set of ethnic quotas. The story of Elizabeth Warren, “woman of color,” represents a reductio ad absurdum of the latter tendency, which has been all too prevalent in elite universities—giving us affirmative-action programs that benefit West Indian immigrants more than the descendants of slaves, and faculties that include a wider range of skin tones than of political and religious views.

The irony is that Warren herself probably did make Harvard more diverse, since she grew up the daughter of a janitor in Oklahoma—not a typical background, to put it mildly, for Ivy League students and faculty today. But under the academy’s cramped definitions, it was her grandfather’s Cherokee cheekbones, not her blue-collar roots, that led to her citation as a supposed trailblazer.

That isn’t a serious approach to academic diversity, and in an emerging majority-minority America (already visible in the latest Census birth statistics) where almost everyone will be 1/8 something-or-other, it will be an increasingly untenable one as well.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Natives Question Warren's Claims and Warren Has No Firsthand Evidence.


Anonymous said...

why you no accept comments

Shadow Wolf said...

I'll accept Johnny Depp over this woman anytime. This lady's *purported* Indian Blood Quantum is so deluded. She could be Martian for all I care.