Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren and beyond: If race doesn’t mean anything, why does it mean so much?

September 27, 2012

So, while serious political candidates sort out what a great advantage it is to be a racial minority in 2012 America, other Americans are fighting to make sure that members of minority groups can fully realize their right to vote.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren (Michael Dwyer/AP)

It’s all in how you look at it. In Massachusetts, GOP Sen. Scott Brown looks at his Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren and doesn’t like what he sees. It’s a new take on the old theme of race, defined as a meaningless social construct until it starts to mean everything. In this case, when Warren — as almost every Oklahoman I’ve ever met – relied on shared family lore to claim Native American heritage, Brown turned it into an issue of both character and undeserved gain.

“Clearly she is not” what she says she is, according to Brown, who clearly can use his visual powers to untangle racial identity, not an easy thing in the genetic stew that is America.

That’s how a close race for the Massachusetts Senate turned into a debate over one candidate’s ancestry claim, punctuated with tomahawk chops and phony war whoops by a bunch of rowdy guys. While it’s good to see the contest move from the all-important issue of whether a stint as a Harvard professor makes you snooty, I’m not sure continual bickering over blood ties to the first Americans is much of an improvement.

Brown’s sensitive stand on behalf of the passed-over Native Americans who could have been Harvard faculty was undercut by Brown staffers who interrupted a rally for Warren with hand gestures beloved by Atlanta Braves fans and chants familiar to viewers of old Western movies.

After the head of the Cherokee Nation called the actions “downright racist,” Brown’s campaign issued a statement on Wednesday night that said the senator “regrets” the “unacceptable” behavior. When you’re going to make race an issue, it’s probably best to first make sure your staffers get the “don’t do anything racist” memo.

Massachusetts residents can take their time revisiting the issue in dueling ads from Brown and Warren. In a recent conference call on voting rights, Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, had something more urgent in mind, that “the last Americans to secure our rightful place at the ballot box” would meet confusion over the acceptability of tribal IDs and availability of ballots in all languages when they tried to vote.

Mitt Romney’s own racial musings have entered the political conversation, as well, first with a joke about his own Michigan birth certificate, a nod to birther fantasies that President Obama is not from around here. (Since he shares with Obama the fact of a foreign-born father, I’ll leave it up to others to figure out why Romney has escaped his own version of birther mythology.)

Later, Romney made a funny at a fund-raiser, that his candidacy would be so much easier if his Mexican-born father had been born of Mexican parents. “I’d have a better shot of winning this,” Romney said. From the chuckles in the room, you know that even the candidate that said “I have inherited nothing” doesn’t for a minute believe that punch line.

Civil rights groups that aren’t laughing cite a report released Monday by the Advancement Project that says laws requiring proof of citizenship and photo identification may prevent up to 10 million Latino voters from casting ballots in November.

Then there’s the president of the United States, who crossed a racial threshold in 2008 yet cannot talk about race. He was criticized by  for his choice to mark “black” on his 2010 census form instead of taking advantage of the multiple choice of multiracial alternatives. Considering he was compelled to show his own birth certificate, I’m not sure making that choice helped him though it sure makes sense.

At least, now that he’s shown the proof, he can vote.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

Read more from PostPolitics:

The fight over Elizabeth Warren’s heritage, explained

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Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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