Elizabeth Warren, the Social Construction of Race, and Affirmative Action
The recent non-scandal/controversy of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be of partial Native American descent has been an annoying distraction from a glaring truth: Warren will be an awesome senator, probably the most progressive voice on the senate this side of Bernie Sanders. I really hope she defeats Scott Brown this November.
But the non-scandal/controversy is also a useful example for academics in the humanities of something we’ve long known: race is a social construction. That’s not to say that race doesn’t exist, but merely to say that it is malleable: sometimes individuals have the agency to fashion their own racial identities, sometimes society will thrust racial identities upon them. As NYU historian Jonathan Zimmerman wrote on Warren and race:
this story is important, nevertheless, for what it tells us about contemporary America. Like Warren, more of us are choosing new racial identities or — more commonly — mixed ones. That’s good news, because it reminds us that “race” itself is a fiction. It exists, of course, but only in our minds.
The other effect the Warren controversy has had is to bring up the issue of affirmative action again, as Warren is being accused of having used, or as her detractors say, invented her partial Native American ancestry to get her faculty jobs at Penn and Harvard. Though I don’t really care what Warren did here one way or the other, I am interested in the question of affirmative action. Starting tomorrow, over the next fews days, PhD Octopus will have a series of posts on affirmative action in academia. Mine will be posted tomorrow morning. Hope you all enjoy.