Saturday, February 02, 2019

Warren, Northam, and "Soul Man"

Touchy issues of race on the Twitter feed today, as Virginia governor Ralph Northam tries to cling to political life after yearbook photos from 1984 showing him in either blackface or a KKK robe have come to light.

The shifting story - first apologizing, then backtracking and saying he's not one of the two people pictured - is implausible. And obviously the photo is indefensible.

But I'm about the same age, and I have to ask: While Klan robes were clearly understood as offensive by the Civil Rights era, did every young person in the mid-80s really get or accept that blackface was wrong?

(The positive Bill Cosby reference makes it even MORE dated.)

This was a major motion picture released in 1986, the height of the Reagan era, when backlash to affirmative action was kicking in as a big wedge issue. Refresher on the plot for my younger readers: Rich white dude poses as black to get a minority scholarship to Harvard Law. That's right, the entire premise of the movie was blackface, and the contrived Moral Of The Story ending did not make it better. (And what on earth convinced James Earl Jones, Darth Vader Himself, to play a good-sized supporting role?)

I remember "Soul Man" (and by extension blackface yearbook photos) being considered cringe-worthy even then, in reasonably enlightened circles... but it was still a hit. A person with a graduate level education should have known better than blackface in the mid-80s, but the mainstream success of "Soul Man" shows that a lot of people didn't, or didn't care.

Affirmative action, and Harvard Law, are also at the core of the controversy around Elizabeth Warren's DNA test and subsequent apology to the Cherokee Nation. Warren has long claimed Cherokee ancestry, and both she and Harvard promoted this "fact," but the testing revealed that her Native genetic share was minuscule, roughly one great-great-great grandparent to great-great-great-great-great grandparent.

Yet I have never understood the Big Deal here. It was clearly a piece of family lore passed down over generations and exaggerated over lifetimes before Warren was even born. She no doubt believed it was true.

Cheap commercial DNA testing for genealogical purposes, as opposed to medical use or criminal investigation, has only been a mainstream thing in the last few years.It certainly wasn't available in 1992, when Warren first taught at Harvard, or 1995, when she was permanently hired.

By coincidence, I worked in a genetic lab (as a clerk) in that same era. We needed good-sized, specially treated and handled blood or amnio fluid draws or tissue samples back then just to count chromosomes and identify major structural chromosome issues. You certainly couldn't mail a saliva sample or cheek swab in and identify markers.

In the mid-90s, what reason would Warren have had to doubt family ancestry tales she had been told her whole life? Partial Native ancestry is not at all uncommon in her home state of Oklahoma, which has the highest percentage Native population in the country (because the land long knowns as "Indian Territory" was considered so worthless that it was the last piece of the Lower 48 that whites took from the Natives.)

It may have benefited both, but if both Warren and Harvard believed her Native ancestry was more extensive than was later shown on her genetic profile, there is no one to blame except 1) her long dead ancestors and 2) the entire system of diversity in hiring or "affirmative action." And voters who are angry about "quotas" are already firmly in the Trump base, have been since the "Soul Man" era,  and unlikely to consider voting for ANY of the Democrats running.

In any case, Warren repeating family tall tales she believed to be true is hardly equal to "Soul Man," or to Northam's behavior which was beginning to be understood as offensive even then.

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