The Slatest

Was It Foolish for Elizabeth Warren to Release a DNA Test Indicating She Has Native Ancestry?

Warren, seen in closeup speaking into reporters' microphones.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 27.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren has released a video and an accompanying document from a Stanford scientist that indicates, via DNA test results, she likely has some distant Native American ancestry. And now all hell has broken loose, with conservatives chortling about just how distant the ancestry is and many on Warren’s side of the partisan divide wondering if she has stepped in it by bringing the issue up in the first place.

The background: When she was a law professor, Warren claimed in some professional contexts to have Native American roots, but didn’t have any evidence other than “family lore” to support the claim. Warren’s political critics have suggested that she might have thus benefited unjustly from affirmative action, and while there’s not any evidence that she ever claimed minority status in an admissions or job application capacity, Donald Trump and others have nonetheless continued to caricature her as a wannabe-“Pocahontas” who is appropriating nonwhite identity.

Trump, in fact, mused in July about the possibility of offering Warren $1 million to take a DNA test during a hypothetical presidential debate. On Monday, Warren framed her release of the results in the context of Trump’s sort-of-offer:

Insofar as DNA tests are broadly suggestive, but not actually definitive, of a given person’s likelihood of having a certain geographical ancestry, it would seem that Warren, who has 2020 presidential ambitions, has put a cap on a potentially damaging dispute (and one-upped Trump) to the extent that is currently empirically possible.

Or has she? Some libs and lib-observers have suggested that Warren has, in fact, owned herself. Here’s the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor:

Or, put more colorfully by Texas-based journalist Chris Hooks:

This line of reasoning suggests that Warren has accomplished little beyond highlighting a limited claim of ancestry that Trump will continue exaggerating and mocking her for anyway. There’s also a separate critique that says by fixating on her own distant genetic connection, Warren is insulting actual current-day sovereign Native American tribes and their right to determine their own membership criteria.

On the other other hand, Warren has not claimed to be a member of an active tribe, only that her family believed that one of her great-great-great-grandmothers had Native ancestry. Many people were skeptical of the claim, and some called her a liar and phony for making it. Now she has some evidence that she may have been right. What else was she supposed to do? Have we really become so Trump-debased that actually backing up what you say with evidence is now a grievous strategic gaffe?