I’m one-sixteenth Bastard. Those who know me well would probably claim that it’s a higher percentage. But technically, I’m only one-sixteenth.
That’s because my grandfather’s grandfather was born just a couple short months after his mother’s 1832 wedding to a man who may or may not have been his biological father and shortly before the couple and their infant child beat a hasty exit to the New World.
Why is my lineage relevant? It’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Except that, apparently, if you can trace 1/32nd of your ancestry to somebody who today would enjoy protected status, you too can enjoy that same protection. At least that’s what Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat running for US Senate in Massachusetts, claims. She used her 1/32nd drop of Cherokee Indian blood to bolster her resume so that she could advance through law schools all the way to a tenured post at Harvard as a minority applicant. (Sadly for me, bastards are not a minority.)
Now if this all seems preposterous to you, you’re right. If Elizabeth Warren, by virtue of her great-great-great-grandmother is entitled to protected status, are my children also minorities as a result of their Powhatan Indian ancestry that dates to the 17th century? As my eldest is applying for colleges next year, that would be awesome news! And if her 1/512th Indian ancestry doesn’t qualify, where is the breakpoint? Is it 1/64th? Or 1/128th? Or 1/256th? Exactly how many drops of minority blood makes one a minority?
Mark Twain exposed the folly of this system of racial discrimination in Pudd’nhead Wilson way back in 1893. The story is set in the antebellum South and involves a baby, born (coincidentally) 1/32nd black, but who was white enough that his mother switched the infant with a white baby so that her son could be raised free from the stain of her race. Twain originally started the story as a comedic interpretation of the mixed up social mores of his day, but as his writing continued the story evolved into a tragedy.
That’s how I view the Elizabeth Warren story too: farce that obscures tragedy. The real issue is not Elizabeth Warren’s gaming of the system to her advantage; it is that this system of racial discrimination even exists. Here we are in the 21st century arguing about how many drops of blood makes a white man black. That’s a tragedy.
Mark Twain is mocking us from the grave.