The Senate race in Massachusetts has taken an interesting turn. The New York Times reports that, while Sen. Scott Brown (D-Mass.) was sinking a half-court shot and picking up endorsements:

By contrast, Elizabeth Warren, his main Democratic challenger for the United States Senate seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy, has been engulfed in controversy stemming from accusations by the Brown camp that she sought an unfair advantage in her academic career by claiming American Indian ancestry. For the last two days, she has kept a low profile in Massachusetts, though she spoke at a union convention in Washington on Tuesday. . . .

The trouble started Friday, when The Boston Herald reported that Harvard Law School, where Ms. Warren teaches, had cited her as a member of a minority group in an effort to counteract criticism that its faculty was too white and too male. Then over the weekend, it was revealed that Ms. Warren had in the past listed herself as a minority member in a national legal directory.

The Brown campaign pounced, saying that by representing herself as a minority member, Ms. Warren had unfairly exploited the goals of affirmative action programs and raised questions about her credibility.

Certainly the Warren campaign would like to paint this as much to do about nothing. But the issue — did Warren crassly play the ethnic spoils system to her advantage? — extends well beyond the campaign.

Whether Warren can scrounge up some distant relative of Native American descent is not going to save her. (The president has Irish ancestry, we are told, but would he have been justified in claiming a scholarship or benefit for Irish Americans?) The Times, hardly a bastion of rightwing skepticism, observes that while her defenders call the issue “trivial” there is something to this, citing David Paleologos, a pollster at Suffolk University in Boston:

“Now, it’s like every day there’s some new discovery or some new twist,” he said. “It’s not even about ancestry anymore; it’s about gaming the system and why did you do this?”

He also opined that the issue wouldn’t last. Maybe not.

But the bigger issue is whether, as the rate of racial intermarriage soars (is there any better indication of Americans discarding bigotry?), the entire affirmative action concept becomes less tenable. How do we define who gets the spoils? If a 1/32 Native American can get some benefit, does the system become akin to the dreaded memory of race laws from a different time and place where a “drop” of blood was sufficient to cast someone into a minority group? Are we going to a “3 of 4 grandparents is enough” rule? It makes one shudder.

Warren is a manipulator in a system designed to foster manipulation. If every clever applicant with a genealogy chart can figure a way to snatch some goodies maybe it’s time to call the whole thing off. In the meantime, Warren should explain herself and let the voters know her views on affirmative action. Is this a gambit she intends to defend?