In October 2014, a meme targeting Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) began to circulate on social media sites. In it, Warren is framed as hypocritically exploiting programs aimed at Native Americans to achieve wealth and political power. Examples cited included her purported ownership of a $5.4 million mansion and a high-paying gig at Harvard University supposedly achieved solely due to her claim of possessing a small amount of Native American heritage:
The image (which concluded with a reminder of Warren’s positions against concentrating power disproportionately amidst the very wealthy) packed a number of claims into one small statement, the first being the value of Warren’s Boston-area home.
Public real estate records suggest Warren’s house is not by any means what one might imagine a mansion to be, boasting a modest four bedrooms and three to three-and-a-half baths. Warren’s home last sold in 1995 for less than $500,000, and market estimates currently vary quite a bit for its potential resale value.
It’s fair to say average Americans would find homes in Warren’s neighborhood to be out of their price range, and assessments of the value of Warren’s home hover between one and two million dollars, far under the $5.4 million cited in the image above. It’s possible the estimate came from the range in which Warren listed her home on standard disclosure forms in 2011 [PDF], a pre-set checkbox field that indicates a value anywhere between one and five million dollars.
Although at one point, Warren did draw a large salary for teaching at Harvard (her 2011 campaign disclosure form indicates a salary for 2010-2011 of $429,981 although her paperwork doesn’t indicate how many classes she was actually teaching), her 2013 tax filings [PDF] indicated that she left in January of that year (when she was sworn in to her Senate post), only retaining an agreement to be able to store some materials at the university and retain an honorary title of emeritus professor. A Harvard Computer Society (HCS) document held Warren’s salary was $192,550 at an unspecified juncture, along with $133,453 in “other compensation.”
The claim about Warren’s use of her Native American heritage to obtain a high-paying job at Harvard University appears to date from her 2012 bid against incumbent Scott Brown for his Senate seat. Brown alleged during a debate in 2012:
I think character is important. I think what you’re referring to is the fact that Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she’s not. That being said, she checked the box and she had an opportunity actually to make a decision throughout her career when she applied to Penn and Harvard and she checked the box claiming she was a Native American.And, you know, clearly she’s not. That being said, I don’t know and neither do the viewers know whether she got ahead as a result of that checking of the box, but the only way that we’ll be able to find that out is to have her release her personnel records, have Harvard release their personnel records to make sure that she did not have an advantage that others were entitled to. When you are a United States Senator you have to pass a test, and one of character and honesty and truthfulness. And I believe, and others believe, that she has failed that test.
The legitimacy of Warren’s claims to Native American heritage has certainly been challenged by many critics, and it is true that while Warren was at U. Penn. Law School she put herself on the “Minority Law Teacher” list as Native American) in the faculty directory of the Association of American Law Schools, and that Harvard Law School at one time promoted Warren as a Native American faculty member. But specific evidence that she gained her position at Harvard (at least in part) through her claims to Native American heritage is lacking. Warren denied applying for special consideration as a person of Native American heritage during her career, and when the matter was examined in 2012 in response to Brown’s claims, people with whom Warren had worked similarly denied her ancestral background’s factoring into the professional opportunities afforded her:
The former chairman of the American Association of Law Schools, David Bernstein, told the Herald that the group’s directory once served as a tip sheet for administrators. “In the old days before the Internet, you’d pull out the AALS directory and look up people,” he said. “There are schools that, if they were looking for a minority faculty member, would go to that list and might say, ‘I didn’t know Elizabeth Warren was a minority.'”Warren said she didn’t know Harvard had used her heritage as proof of diversity until reading about the issue in the news, according to a Herald report. She also denied that she ever tried to gain a professional advantage through her lineage.
Warren responded she was recruited for the positions and did not “apply” for them; and for the most part, her record did not indicate any identification as part of a minority group:
The Globe obtained a portion of Warren’s application to Rutgers, which asks if prospective students want to apply for admission under the school’s Program for Minority Group Students. Warren answered “no.”For her employment documents at the University of Texas, Warren indicated that she was “white.”
But Penn’s 2005 Minority Equity Report identified her as the recipient of a 1994 faculty award, listing her name in bold to signify that she was a minority.
The Herald has twice quoted Charles Fried, the head of the Harvard appointing committee that recommended Warren for her position in 1995, saying that the Democratic candidate’s heritage didn’t come up during the course of her hiring. “It simply played no role in the appointments process,” he said. “It was not mentioned and I didn’t mention it to the faculty.”
The Herald later quoted Fried, a former U.S. Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan, saying, “I can state categorically that the subject of her Native American ancestry never once was mentioned.”
In October 2018, Senator Warren released a report on a DNA analysis that was said to show a pure Native American ancestor appeared in her ancestry “in the range of six to 10 generations ago.”
In September 2018, the Boston Globe published the results of an investigation over whether Warren was hired at Harvard because “had decided to self-identify as a Native American woman and Harvard saw a chance to diversify the law faculty.” The Globe concluded that:
In the most exhaustive review undertaken of Elizabeth Warren’s professional history, the Globe found clear evidence, in documents and interviews, that her claim to Native American ethnicity was never considered by the Harvard Law faculty, which voted resoundingly to hire her, or by those who hired her to four prior positions at other law schools. At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a white woman.
The Globe examined hundreds of documents, many of them never before available, and reached out to all 52 of the law professors who are still living and were eligible to be in [on the decision]. Some are Warren’s allies. Others are not. Thirty-one agreed to talk to the Globe — including the law professor who was, at the time, in charge of recruiting minority faculty. Most said they were unaware of her claims to Native American heritage and all but one of the 31 said those claims were not discussed as part of her hire. One professor told the Globe he is unsure whether her heritage came up, but is certain that, if it did, it had no bearing on his vote on Warren’s appointment.
Hicks, Josh. “Did Elizabeth Warren Check the Native American Box When She ‘Applied’ to Harvard and Penn?”
The Washington Post. 28 September 2012.
Bierman, Noah. “Document Ties Warren Kin to Cherokees.”
The Boston Globe. 30 April 2012.
Franke-Ruta, Garance. “Is Elizabeth Warren Native American or What?”
The Atlantic. 20 May 2012.
Jacobs, Sally. Elizabeth Warren’s Family Has Mixed Memories About Heritage.”
The Boston Globe. 15 September 2012.