As Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns for a 2020 presidential run, she reminds me of some long-standing issues about racial identification.
Warren, whom President Donald Trump has pejoratively labeled “Pocahontas” for claiming she has American Indian heritage, took a DNA test to prove it. When the results showed she has hardly any, she was criticized for falsely claiming Native ancestry. Some speculate this may hurt her presidential aspirations.
Warren’s predicament points up the historical, legal and cultural arbitrariness of racial categories. For example, if Warren had proclaimed she had even one African ancestor, she would be defined as black legally and socially in most of the U.S. That’s because our nation uses the one-drop rule, or hypodescent, as the definition of who is black.
As white slave-owners realized they would benefit by including their offspring with enslaved African women as nonwhite, the legal and social definition of who is black became anyone with even one black ancestor.
The rule has been used in court repeatedly. One of the most famous cases involved Susie Guillory Phipps, a Louisiana woman who presumed she and all her ancestors were white, yet when she tried to get a passport, she discovered that she was listed as black on her birth certificate. According to The New York Times, because she had a black ancestor – an enslaved woman, 222 years back in her family history – she was black.
The 2016 movie “Free State of Jones” is based partly on the case of Davis Knight, who in the late 1940s in Mississippi, was convicted of the crime of miscegenation for having a white wife. Generations of his family lived as white people, although one of their ancestors had been a freed black woman. Their case was documented in an article by scholar Victoria Bynum.
Warren, who is from Oklahoma, a state with a large Native population, learned, like many black people, that some time in the past, her family has indigenous ancestry without any documentation of exactly when that happened.
Here is where I see similarities between Warren’s situation and that of many black people. After all, we African-Americans could not document specifically all our ancestors in slavery; but we know they existed.
I have heard stories of indigenous ancestry in my family all my life, most often involving the Choctaws. But, like Warren, when I had my DNA ancestry tests done, only one would say there was a probability that 1 percent of my genes come from Native Americans. Does this mean family stories have been debunked? Not necessarily. There are limits to how far back these tests can trace – only about five to seven generations – and they are less reliable for non-white customers.
The truth is, throughout the history of this country, race has been manipulated and defined to the disadvantage of both black and indigenous people. My attempts at empathy with others have opened my mind to connections that could be.
Warren has not used her Native heritage to defraud anyone or take advantage of affirmative action programs. The way for her to deal with racism is not to prove that she is indigenous or a member of any other race, but to decry the racism in the epithets used against her and others. This is especially important for someone who is running for president of a diverse nation.
Starita Smith is an award-winning writer, editor and sociologist based in Irving, Texas. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.