More conclusively than it tells us anything about her genetic heritage, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s neatly choreographed release of her own DNA analysis makes one thing abundantly clear: she’s running for the White House in 2020.
That’s the primary takeaway from political pundits in the wake of a slick, five-minute campaign video, in which the firebrand liberal from Massachusetts openly discussed her family background, specifically her Native American ancestry. Technically it was released by her Senate campaign against the Republican Geoff Diehl, but it’s clear it has nothing to do with that race, which Warren is expected to win handily.
Instead, the release was a direct rebuke to Donald Trump, who has made a habit of mocking her claims of Native American ancestry by referring to her by the racist moniker “Pocahontas”. Warren’s move is a clear gambit to get out in front of a controversy that has dogged her political career and could be a big stumbling block in the future.
David Axelrod, a top adviser in Barack Obama’s campaigns and administration, called the ad “extraordinary” and said it meant Warren was “100% running” for president in 2020.
The New York Times political correspondent Jonathan Martin said on Twitter: “It’s not ‘I’m running’, it’s ‘I’m running and won’t be swift-boated’,” referring to the discredited ads questioning John Kerry’s military service that ran during the 2004 presidential election. “Swift-boating” subsequently entered the American political lexicon as a term for a campaign of disingenuous or false attacks on a candidate’s background.
Because what the ad, and the DNA test behind it, doesn’t do is offer any useful insights into Warren’s background. The analysis, conducted by the respected geneticist Carlos Bustamante, found with high confidence that Warren had a Native American relative six to 10 generations back, which, as the Boston Globe calculated, would mean her DNA registered somewhere between 1/32nd and 1/1024th Native American.
That is far too distant an ancestry to claim tribal status in the US, which Warren has never done, but it says nothing about the degree to which a family lore of Native American ancestors was part of her upbringing in rural Oklahoma. People don’t take DNA tests before they decide what stories to tell their children about their family history – and in the ad, Warren suggests that is where her quite limited claims of Native ancestry originate.
“When my momma was 19, and my daddy was 20, they eloped,” she said of her parents, because her father’s family did not approve of his marriage to Warren’s mother, “because my mother’s family … was part Native American”.
When DNA testing for tribal status, the tests administered to join indigenous nations check paternity to actual tribal members, and are not the same as the autosomal DNA inferences made by popular ancestry services like 23andme or Ancestry.com.
Some in the Native American community were frustrated with the ad for dignifying Trump’s disrespectful “Pocahontas” attacks with a response.
“I wish [Warren] hadn’t released her DNA results,” said Gyasi Ross, a speaker, author and regular commenter on issues affecting Native peoples in the US. “I’m glad she found out who she is for her own knowing. But now she made the ‘does she have any REMOTE Native ancestry’ spectacle part of her campaign,” Ross said in a tweet. “She turned Native ancestry into a campaign prop.”
Some critics also expressed frustration that Warren’s divulgence gives credit to the controversial idea that a person can be some measurable percentage of this or that ethnicity – since ethnic groups have always been porous and intermixed.
“Blood quantum [is] an institution of colonialism, & we don’t do this for other races,” said Graham Lee Brewer, a tribal member and reporter on Indian Country in Oklahoma.
In its details, Bustamante’s analysis (and those done by commercial DNA testing companies) are much more nuanced than saying a person is some percentage of this or that race or ethnicity. But often the findings get reduced into simpler and scientifically discredited ideas of so-called “blood quantum”.
The Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called Bustamante’s report “junk science” early on Monday.
Unclear from Warren’s announcement is exactly what effect it would have in a potential 2020 matchup with Trump. The president’s racist name-calling towards Warren has never been about Native ancestry per se, but rather a useful way to intimate that she is a liar and an opportunist. “Who cares?” Trump said of the results early on Monday.
Indeed, Trump might seize on the possible low-water mark of 1/1024 Native ancestry from Bustamante’s analysis the next time he’s looking to make broadsides at Warren’s background.
It’s also conceivable that he won’t change his attacks at all. After all, Trump’s “birther” attacks on Barack Obama pushed a sitting president to release his long-form birth certificate, only to have Trump continue to wonder aloud years later if Obama really was born in the US.