My grandfather used to enjoy driving around the back roads of Louisiana. When he’d see some old folks sitting on rocking chairs out on their porch, he’d often pull over to chat. The most common topic of conversation was: who were your parents and who are your kin? Since almost everyone was related (often in multiple ways), this was how they worked out exactly how they were connected to each other. My grandfather had memorized an elaborate ancestral tree, and this type of knowledge was pretty widespread among the older people, so he and his new contacts could generally end up classifying each other as cousins.
For all his detailed command of our family history, a few of his claims in this area always seemed to me vague and speculative. In particular, he used to assure me that we were “part Choctaw.” This was not entirely implausible. There are still a few Choctaw left in my ancestral region on the northeastern side of Lake Ponchartrain and there were more a couple of hundred years ago. But although my grandfather could recite a long list of fathers and mothers going back to the first arrival in this country in the seventeenth century, he never could identify that Choctaw forbear precisely. I always thought that he might, on occasions, allow his love of a good story to interfere with strict adherence to the truth. At any rate, if we do have any Amerindian background, I’m sure that any genetic traces have been lost in the larger pool of inheritance, and I certainly retain no cultural traits from our putative Choctaw heritage.
Recently, I’ve been reminded of my genealogical expertise and occasional genealogical creativity by the Elizabeth Warren affair. Ms. Warren is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Democratic candidate for the Senate seat in Massachusetts. In the course of her campaign against Republican Scott Brown, it has become public knowledge that Harvard University, where she taught law, formerly listed her as a “minority” on the basis of her supposed Native American ancestry, as did the American Association of Law Schools from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.
It is not clear that dubious ethnic claims played a part in Warren’s hiring by Harvard or that the misleading official identification originated with her, although it is hard for me to see where Harvard or the AALS would have obtained this information, if not from her. I also think that she might have corrected the AALS description before it ran for a decade. But rather than level accusations of fraud against Ms. Warren, I’d rather consider this as an instance of the absurdity of the “diversity” ideology that encourages selective interpretations of ancestry. For all I know, Harvard and the AALS may well define “Native American” as anyone with a pre-Columbian ancestor, in which case a Nordic-looking woman with no tribal connections could well be a “minority.” I’d guess that the university and the association have no clear definition of who falls within a category, so that she’s probably in the clear. The bigger problem is the desperate institutional effort to classify as many people as “minorities” as possible in order to increase diversity ratings.
My own children, in addition to their Louisiana background, are also half-Filipino. I usually tell them not to list themselves on applications as “Asian” because being Asian is generally more of a disadvantage than being white in systems of selection by racial and ethnic categories. Or, since Filipinos usually have Spanish last names, they could use their mother’s name and claim to be “Hispanic-surnamed.” Or maybe they could just be Choctaw. In today’s world, genealogy has many more uses than just making connections with your kinfolk.
The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?
Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.