Trump, Warren, and America's Racial Essentialism

The senator’s release of DNA-test results inadvertently validates the president’s taunts about her claimed Native American ancestry.

Charles Krupa / AP

Throughout America’s race-bound history, blood has always been a pernicious stand-in for authenticity. Terms like white, Negro, Indian, mulatto, quadroon, Creole, and even Melungeon have served as much more than messy colloquial or self-descriptive identities; they’ve been used by those in power to assign people to castes. It is only in this context that one-drop rules and percentages of racial ancestry have become markers of anything, a context in which dusty old race science still animates policy and great-great-great-grandparents can still be incurable taints or gatekeepers.

Regrettably enough for everyone, the politics of the moment are affected by that legacy, too. On Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren released a DNA test result that, according to The Boston Globe, “provides ‘strong evidence’ she had a Native American in her family tree dating back 6 to 10 generations.” The results, accompanied by a detailed accounting of the testing methods and a massive media rollout, appear intended to debunk insinuations from President Donald Trump that Warren had fabricated Native American ancestry—and they may have been released to clear the air before a 2020 presidential run, too. But considering the history of American racial essentialism and the nature of Trump’s know-nothing bullying, it doesn’t seem likely that Warren’s move will add any clarity at all. Things will only get worse.

Warren has been the subject of some controversy over her ancestry for years now, as she’s often described her mother’s lineage as part Cherokee. During her 2012 Senate campaign, Republican opposition researchers zeroed in on her tenure at Harvard Law School, where she was mentioned in student-newspaper stories detailing the institution’s ethnic diversity. Those reports became part of GOP attacks implying that Warren had made up part of her family history in order to benefit from affirmative action. They’ve formed the core of Trump’s attacks against her as well, most often in the form of a slur: He’s deployed the derisive nickname “Pocahontas” against Warren multiple times, ignoring the objections of indigenous communities in the process. This cycle of insult reached its nadir in July, when Trump bashed Warren at a rally. After referring to her as “Pocahontas” a few times, he offered to pay a million dollars to a charity of Warren’s choice “if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”

Trump has so far chosen to ignore reports that Warren didn’t try to use her self-reported ancestry as an advantage. Last month, a Globe story appeared to debunk most of the rumors; it documented how most people at Harvard just thought she was white, although she did check “Native American” on some official forms. In the words of David Wilkins, a Harvard Law professor who voted on Warren’s job offer: “Let’s be blunt. Elizabeth Warren is a white woman.” But both the rumors from opponents and the adamant protestations from the senator have serious repercussions in a heated debate about affirmative action. White race essentialists have long griped about the policy and fantasized about how minuscule DNA evidence of nonwhite ancestry would confer upon them some advantage. People of color have long rejected this line of argument as one that ignores the obvious dynamics of kinship, community connection, and the race-targeted effects of America’s caste system.

The saga has thus dragged on, culminating in the news Monday that Warren is somewhere between one-32nd and one-1024th Native American. In less shocking news, Trump flat-out refused to honor his bet, though he did opine on what Warren’s ancestry means for her political chances. “I hope she’s running for president because I think she’d be very easy,” he told CNN.

But the bet was never the point, and the test was never the point. Trump was using the playbook he’d written to discredit an earlier foe, from whom he similarly demanded documents to prove authenticity. Trump entered the political arena as a gadfly of former President Barack Obama’s, becoming a champion of the racist “birther” movement that claimed Obama was not an American-born citizen (and may have been the product of a global plot to weaken or destroy America). At the heart of the theory were purported discrepancies with Obama’s biographical information and his birth certificate. Trump pushed birtherism along by demanding multiple records from Obama and constantly moving the goalposts once his claims were debunked.

Trump has never apologized for advancing birtherism. Indeed, he’s portrayed himself as a vindicated seeker of truth for proving that Obama was born in the United States; the former president released his long-form birth certificate in April 2011. But as with Warren, the documents were never the point. What became evident early on in the birtherism saga was that much of the energy directed against Obama was simply intended to create partisan misdirection, confusion, and distraction. Those things all aided Trump in his quest for power, degrading the national discourse in the process. In a way, Trump proved true an old adage from the legendary author Toni Morrison: “Know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction,” she instructed an audience at a 1975 lecture.

The episode with Warren isn’t birtherism. Warren is not subject to the racial animus that Obama was, nor is she the subject of the towering edifice of conspiracy theories that was built around Obama’s person. She is, for all intents and purposes, a white woman, whose clash with Trump has mostly served to further poison the well of racial discourse and policy instead of enlightening it. And the kinship she has purportedly established by providing DNA evidence is not one that’s recognized by tribal law and understandings. “It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring traditional tribal governments and their citizens,” wrote Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. in a press release on Monday. “Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

But Trump has no interest in those considerations, nor in the negative reactions among Native Americans to his own attacks against Warren. The key takeaway of Trump’s birtherism stint is that he has proven adept at wielding bullying and gaslighting in service of racial gatekeeping, and he isn’t impeded by facts. The age-old game of racial essentialism and blood policing is itself intended to stack the deck in favor of bullies, to always siphon power from the weak, and to require an ever-shifting burden of proof among aggrieved parties that can never be met. Trump will always win this game because it is rigged for him to win.

In choosing to play along, Warren ratifies the tired game. The order of events that will ensue are predictable. Trump will not retire his slurs. Republican operatives beholden to him will continue to ridicule and poke holes in the evidence Warren has presented. There will be no substantiated bets. Everyone will fight a little longer over an ancestor from the 1700s. And the people hurt most by the bullying—by the slurs and a government increasingly fluent in bigotry—will be those who are still carved out, and who have no real say on where in the hierarchy they stand.