Recently there has been a steady drumbeat of not only new revelations in the affirmative action controversy involving Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, but also the quest for columnists to publish Native American puns while covering it. And some of the puns have been pretty good. As a columnist, I can vouch that a pun-rich story is catnip for opinion-writers. Indeed, using humor as a way to keep the reader’s attention is one of the arrows in my personal literary quiver.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But there is a lot more than humor that is keeping this story going. Granted, the campaign of incumbent Senator Scott Brown loves to generate buzz on the issue every day. And it is fair to say that the Boston Herald, the newspaper that broke the story in late April, has a conservative bent.
An argument can also be made that this controversy shows the bankruptcy of affirmative action. Ms. Warren has never been on the receiving end of any racial discrimination because of her claimed Native American heritage, and if she had, the racism would have exhibited even more stupidity than usual. Her features are almost the exact opposite of Native American features: fair skin, blond hair, blue eyes. She has even been compared to the members of the late 70’s Scandinavian rock band, ABBA.
Yet the claim that she was part Cherokee was out there when she was hired at Ha, Harvard Law School was promoting racial diversity in its faculty.
But all this was known within a couple weeks of the birth of this story. Nevertheless, the media keeps referring to it. And not just the conservative media – even the New York Times and the Washington Post have recently discussed the controversy. So what is it that keeps the story going?
I have a theory, and here goes. As anyone who has pondered the idea of applying for affirmative action help can attest, the temptation is great to “check the box,” whereby you claim some kind of minority ancestry.
There is this guy I know – not me, some other guy -- who, even though his parents were paying his bills, got alarmed at how much his tuition and housing cost as he progressed from college into law school. He looked into minority-based scholarships, and considered “checking the box,” but there was a problem: he had the same physical features as Ms. Warren: fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. He also had a quick wit, muscular build and extreme intelligence, but that is beside the point.
But this guy did feel the temptation to apply. There must be thousands Caucasian students who face the same temptation all the time, or so I have heard. But to do so would be wrong – not playing by the rules.
Similarly, the temptation to apply for an affirmative action scholarship was probably a lot like the temptation felt by a lot of people who signed up for mortgages that they couldn’t afford, requiring no down payment. Although it may have been legal, when applicants took advantage of programs that eased mortgage requirements, they stepped in front of others who followed the traditional route to home ownership: save up for a down payment and get a mortgage only for a house you can afford.
When the bottom fell out of the housing market and the Obama administration tried to bail out those who shouldn’t have gotten easy mortgages in the first place, voters were outraged. They were angry that people who had not followed the rules were getting a free ride, an unfair advantage.
The Elizabeth Warren website taps into the anger felt by the public about those who have not played by the rules. “I believe we must be a country with a level playing field,” she says on her website, “where everyone willing to work hard has a chance to get ahead.”
It may be a stretch, but I would argue that the same outrage is at play in Elizabeth Warren’s affirmative action scandal. Instead of working hard and waiting her turn for employment and tenure, she “checked the box” and claimed phony Native American ancestry. Now that she has been found out, the public is being told to give her a pass and let it go.
We live in a country with a recent history of un-even playing fields. And even worse, those who have enjoyed an unfair advantage, whether by applying for mortgages they cannot afford and haven’t earned, or by claiming phony minority status, want their advantage paid for or excused by the rest of us. It simply isn’t fair.
As I read the smoke signals of this controversy, this common outrage is why the story continues to resonate.