The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why calling Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’ is a slur against all mixed-race Americans

It’s part of the long history of erasing people of mixed heritage.

Elizabeth Warren’s embrace of her mixed-race ancestry has become a political weapon in the hands of her opponents. (AP)

President Trump’s assault on Sen. Elizabeth Warren descended to a new low Monday. Calling the Massachusetts leader “Pocahontas” during a ceremony honoring Native American code-talker veterans, Trump not only slurred Warren — he slurred all American families whose histories include ancestors of differing races.

By now Warren’s story is familiar. When registering with the American Association of Law Schools between 1986 and 1995, she checked an “Indian” box to describe her ancestry. When pressed by critics who questioned her background, Warren explained that she was “proud” of her Native heritage as passed down to her by stories told by her parents and grandparents.

Critics accuse Warren of leveraging her “minority” status to snag a job at Harvard Law School in 1992. Others charge that Warren’s self-identification was strategic and, even worse, illegitimate. How, they ask, could a woman who is by her own telling no more than 1/32 Native American claim to be anything other than white?

The answer is that Warren, like millions of other Americans, is mixed-race, and percentages shouldn’t matter when we consider such ancestry.

If the consternation surrounding Warren sounds familiar, it should. It was less than a decade ago when an aspiring politician, Barack Obama, provoked similar confusion when the nation learned his mother was a white American and his father a black African. Obama explained that the roots of the controversy lay, in part, in the long history of America’s anti-miscegenation laws — prohibitions against interracial intimacy.

In “Dreams from My Father” he reflected upon the 19th-century notion of miscegenation, calling it a “humpbacked, ugly” word that portended “a monstrous outcome.” While miscegenation evoked for Obama “images of another era,” it also described his own life: “It wasn’t until 1967 — the year I celebrated my sixth birthday — that the Supreme Court of the United States would get around to telling the state of Virginia that its ban on interracial marriages violated the Constitution.”

In the case to which Obama was referring, Loving v. Virginia, the court struck down anti-miscegenation laws. But the nation has never fully reckoned with how to understand the children of such unions.

In 2008, commentators wondered aloud: was Obama white, black or just not black enough? From a historical perspective, the answer was simple and not unfamiliar: mixed-race children like Obama were usually viewed through a so-called one-drop rule, which decreed that any person with black ancestry was considered black, no matter how many white ancestors they had. Such legal pseudo-precision was necessary in a country where access to civil rights was determined by racial classification.

Warren’s case is different. That’s because for most of the 20th century, lawmakers treated people descended from white-Indian unions as exceptional cases.

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, for example, extended special consideration to people said to be descended from Native American grandmothers. Legislators in the fiercely segregated state were forced to confront the puzzle of mixed-race people, because so many of the state’s leading families claimed ties to Pocahontas and her husband, John Rolfe. In the end, the so-called Pocahontas exception deemed those with as much as 1/16 Indian ancestry to be white, leaving them at liberty to marry other whites. As a result, Native ancestry was subsumed by whiteness, just as white ancestry was obliterated by blackness.

Yet as rigidly as such racial boundary lines were policed, it could not erase mixed-race Americans. Nor could census practices that for decades forced respondents to self-identity as a single race. That practice changed with the 2000 Census, when respondents with “origins in the peoples of more than one race” were finally permitted to check more than one box. Thanks to that change, we know that as of 2010 nearly 9 million Americans, or 3 percent of the population, self-identify as mixed-race. This number increased 32 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Still, for millions of Americans, checking boxes is no straightforward matter. Not only do the boxes change over time, but our own ideas about how we fit into those boxes can also shift. Like Warren, we learn who we are by way of stories passed down by elders. To them, we add family histories recovered from censuses, birth certificates and other government documents. Today, we may mix in the results of DNA analysis. Also relevant are the communities in which we come of age, where culture and experience powerfully shape our identities.

The result is that telling a family history of race can never be reduced to a precise result. Identities can be fluid. Even our ideas about which pasts count can change. While in his 1995 memoir Obama told us that he was the child of a mixed union, in 2010 he checked only one box on his census form: the one labeled black.

What boxes Warren checked in 2010 we do not know. However, if she checked more than one, we should not be surprised.

Warren is from Oklahoma, where in 2010, 7.1 percent of the population reported being “of more than one race,” a rate more than twice the national average. And in Oklahoma, the overwhelming majority of people who reported more than one race self-identified, like Warren, as being of white and Native American ancestry. Warren’s family stories of forebears from Europe and of Native American descent, and the resulting mixed identities, are widely shared by people from Oklahoma, a place that the federal government labeled Indian Territory until 1907.

Warren’s case reminds us that vestiges of the anti-miscegenation regime continue to shape our ideas about race and identity. As mixed-race people like Warren speak openly about their family histories, fears abound. Census observers express alarm. Where will the categories end when the census allows for boundless mixed options? Mixed-race people, they worry, will prevent us from keeping meaningful statistics or drawing useful generalizations from demographic data.

Other alarmists ask, if we permit people to be mixed-race, don’t we open the door to fraud and abuse? Mixed-race people, they warn, will use their complex heritage to material advantage — claiming to be black, white or Indian depending upon the benefits attached to such categories.

We need not jump on this bandwagon of racial purity. We certainly should not be reduced to slurs. Elizabeth Warren provides an opportunity to set aside fears and suspicions. By understanding her story and those of nine million other Americans like her, we begin to embrace the complex and mixed-up history of race in America.