Disturbingly absent from the analysis of Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s rebuke at last week’s debate of Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren’s claim that she has Native American ancestry is any reference to the racially insensitive nature of his reproach. After noting that “Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American,” he added pointedly, “And as you can see, she’s not.”

Which raises the obvious question: which of her facial features alerted Brown that she has no Native American blood coursing through her veins? Surely, if she possessed whatever tiny fraction of one’s DNA must trace back to an indigenous tribe before he or she is deemed to be Native American, she’d have shiny, jet-black hair or a tan complexion. Or was it the absence of beads or a feather and a headband that tipped Brown off?

For a fellow who, like so many other Republican senatorial candidates, has been distancing himself from Romney’s recent stereotyping of 47% of the populace as freeloaders, Brown’s remark was downright Romneyesque. Or worse.

Indeed, the comment reeks of the stereotyping of a bygone era. Did Brown observe, upon meeting Senator Joe Lieberman or Al Franken or Dianne Feinstein, “Funny, he doesn’t look Jewish.” Somehow, though, it’s okay to say it about Native Americans.

While the truth of Warren’s representation on a couple of job applications that she has Cherokee and Delaware Indian ancestry may be relevant to the issue of character, Brown’s remark reveals something about him: with respect to the sensibilities of vulnerable groups, he – like the guy at the head of the party’s ticket – just doesn’t get it!

Noting the troubling nature of Brown’s remark is not to pass judgment on Warren’s as-yet unsubstantiated claim of some degree of Native American heritage, however well taken her point that kids don’t ask parents to document the information they pass on about their ancestry. It does, however, underscore the right’s deep resentment of the social safety net and affirmative action, as well as the Eurocentric preoccupation with ethnicity that fuels the birther debate, a miasma that should have dissolved long ago, and legislation like Arizona’s “show me your papers” law.

It also underscores the pitfalls of attempting to classify race and measure ethnicity in the first place. Those attempting to determine Cherokee heritage, for example, run into claims from De Soto onward that “Cherokees are light skinned,” and that the “Dawes Rolls” adopted by the Cherokee Nation as the official registry by which claims of ancestry are determined excludes many individuals with significant Cherokee lineage.

Brown’s remark represents the flipside of our distressing history of classifying anyone with a fraction of non-Caucasian ancestry as on-white, as if a drop of non-white blood contaminates the pool. In the seminal case of Loving v. Virginia, for example, in which the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage, the Commonwealth had classified as a “white person” anyone “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian,” a notion which, to one degree or another, lives on in many circles today. The irony here is that, when minorities represent a threat to racial purity, we’ve attempted to employ precise scientific measurements, but when minority status is perceived to carry an advantage, it’s fine to judge a book by its cover, as did Brown.

Even worse than Brown’s offensive comment, however, is that we seem oblivious to its insensitivity. In a day when 24/7 cable and Internet news outlets wring every drop of newsworthiness our of a candidate’s utterances, surely Brown could have been taken to task for his offensive remark.

Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School
of Law in South Florida. Many of his pieces can be found in the
National Law Journal and the Huffington Post.

Bookmark and Share