After Senator Elizabeth Warren officially announced her presidential candidacy, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney referred to her as a “laughingstock.” I would say Cheney is half right. While Republicans may be laughing at Warren, women of color, considered an essential component of any Democratic candidate’s path to victory, shouldn’t be laughing at all.
When Rachel Dolezal was unmasked as a white woman who misrepresented her racial and ethnic identity, in part to bolster her professional bona fides as a voice of the disenfranchised, she was penalized—heavily. She went from rising media star to late-night punchline, unemployable and impoverished. I don’t wish poverty on Warren, but I don’t understand how her only punishment for a similar fraud seems to be that she may become president.
Warren and her supporters seem to think her lie—which is what it was— should not render her unfit for office. In an age in which the current occupant of the White House bragged about sexual assault, their reasoning may bear out but that doesn’t make it right. In the same way her supporters ask themselves how any sane woman could have voted for a man who behaved in the way he described on the “Access Hollywood” tape, I have to ask how any sane woman of color could support a woman who behaved as Warren did.
Because self-identifying as a member of a disenfranchised group for professional gain is appalling. Her unwillingness to admit how appalling and exploitative her behavior was and how insulting and harmful this kind of fraud is makes her uniquely ill-suited to counter a president who exploits ethnic politics to divide us daily.
For those who think I’m overreacting, consider this: Affirmative action is emerging as one of the major issues not only dividing our courts, but defining the contentious age in which we live. “Diversity,” considered a laudable goal on the left, has become a bogeyman of the right. This makes the timing of Warren’s presidential launch particularly horrifying to those of us who genuinely care about diversity and equality. Warren has emerged as the gift that keeps on giving to those who believe that programs aimed at achieving diversity and equality for racial minorities are nothing more than scams that disadvantage those who work hard and play by the rules.
The debate over affirmative action and diversity programs ricocheted back into the spotlight in recent years thanks to two prominent court cases, Fisher v. University of Texas and Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. While affirmative action at the collegiate level was left intact by the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling on the Fisher case, most scholars believe it was left hanging by a thread. This thread will likely unravel thanks to the shifting makeup of the Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy, who voted with the majority of the court on the Fisher ruling, has since retired, replaced by conservative jurist Brett Kavanaugh. It is widely anticipated the Students for Fair Admissions case, which seeks to prove Harvard admission standards unfairly benefit African-American applicants at the expense of others, particularly Asian students, could end affirmative action as we know it. To be clear, this debate has far-reaching implications beyond college campuses. The entire concept of diversity, and our efforts to achieve it, is being put under a microscope by the courts.
Americans generally support the broad concept of “affirmative action” but they don’t like to feel as though they, or their families, are being shortchanged at the expense of someone else–particularly someone they presume is not playing fair. So Americans tend to oppose measures that they believe fall in the latter category.
The experts I have interviewed on the subject have indicated that solving the affirmative action conundrum is like solving an impossible puzzle, because all of the primary goals Americans think they want are actually at odds. We all think we want a meritocracy, until our college basketball team gets defeated in the championships. Then we want exceptions for SAT scores– but only for talented athletes. We don’t want exceptions for legacies, until we want a new college stadium or library and the legacy’s mom or dad can write a check to pay for it. We all want diversity, until that means your son doesn’t get into his dream school or your husband’s small business doesn’t get a government contract.
This is what makes Elizabeth Warren’s fraud so dangerous. Just as affirmative action is on the chopping block and the very idea that diversity is a worthy goal is under attack, she played right into the hands of right-wing critics. White women are largely considered the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action efforts, but it is racial minorities who are most often the punching bag for critics. And yet Warren has now managed to epitomize the very worst stereotypes about affirmative action and diversity programs. Namely, that they benefit people who don’t really need them and are used by unqualified scammers to beat the system.
With so many unique problems facing women of color, from the fact that we lag behind white women in the wage gap, to our childbirth mortality rates and our breast cancer mortality rates, it would be nice to know that presidential candidates genuinely cared about our unique challenges, in addition to the challenges facing other communities. It’s hard to believe someone genuinely cares when they have used our history of pain and suffering in such an egregious manner.
For the record, I have Native American ancestry. Unlike Warren, my grandmother is able to confirm firsthand the role our Native American ancestor played in our family. Though indigenous women are rarities on elite college campuses and at competitive news outlets, and therefore claiming that heritage may have helped me advance in some way, I couldn’t imagine doing so. It would be wholly inappropriate for me to exploit the traumatic and unique experience of indigenous women for my own gain. I recognize that, and I don’t consider myself extraordinary in any way.
It’s galling that someone running for president as a progressive can’t see or won’t admit how inappropriate and offensive this is. But then again, when multiple Democratic elected officials in Virginia have been exposed for wearing blackface, and another is accused of rape, perhaps Warren thinks her behavior is not so bad by comparison.
However, I’m an optimist and I believe our political process can do better than Warren, Trump, and the characters in Virginia.
It’s hard to fathom we could do any worse.