On Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined The Breakfast Club radio show. The 48-minute interview, for the most part, was smooth sailing. She cruised through her plans for taxing the uber-wealthy and properly regulating ginormous corporations like Amazon. For the first 20 minutes, the conversation between the Democratic presidential candidate and the trio of hosts was jovial and friendly. Warren engaged with the fairly softball questions enthusiastically.
Then, co-host Charlamagne tha God broached the subject of Warren’s infamous DNA test, and things went way off the tracks.
The first question was simple and open enough: “The Native American thing—do you regret taking the DNA test?”
“I can’t go back,” Warren responded. “I grew up in Oklahoma. I learned about my family the same way most people learn about their family. From my momma and my daddy and my aunts and my uncles. And it’s what I believed. But I’m not a person of color. I’m not a citizen of a tribe. And I shouldn’t have done it.”
When Charlamagne asked if Warren would change her course if she had a chance to do it over, she responded, “I can’t go back, but I shouldn’t have.” Then came the pivot.
Warren proceeded to jump straight into a list of manicured talking points, quickly reeling off her plans for erasing student loan debt, HBCU funding, housing and redlining, healthcare, maternal mortality rates for black women. Those plans are all good ones. But, in this instance, they were an elision meant to steer the conversation back to safety.
To their credit, the Breakfast Club crew didn’t allow her to slide so easily. Charlamagne listened to her policy layout and then recounted how Warren listed herself as Native American on the Texas Bar and documents when she was employed at Harvard University.
“It’s what I believed,” she responded. “You know, like I said, that’s it. It’s what I learned from my family.”
Charlamagne continued pressing, asking her when she found out her family’s claims were false, to which Warren responded, “Well, it’s—I’m not a person of color, I’m not a citizen of a tribe. And tribal citizenship is an important distinction and not something I am. So...” She then cited a Boston Globe investigation that found she received no benefits from claiming to be an Indigenous person when asked if she got anything “like a college discount” by DJ Envy. That’s when Charlamagne dropped the dagger.
“You kind of like the original Rachel Dolezal, a little bit,” he said.
Warren paused and looked at him, saying, “This is what I learned from my family.”
DJ Envy then swung in to save Warren, moving the conversation on to the immigration reform, and that was that. Neither Native people or the DNA test came up the rest of the segment, and the Club’s hosts seemed to largely enjoy their time with Warren, as was noted by non-Native mainstream reporters who seem perplexed as to why her subpar answers to questions about the most significant gaffe of her campaign would garner critical coverage rather than laudatory praise for the surrounding PR substance.
Given it’s been seven months since Warren released her infamous high-production quality six-minute video about her DNA test, it feels fair to make the assessment that she is still uncomfortable talking about it. She has learned how to publicly respond to inquiries poking at the edges of the issue— “I’m not a person of color. I’m not a citizen of a tribe.”—but when the nerve is touched, she reverts to her mental cue cards, instinctively reeling off many of the plans she has for this country.
But if the Breakfast Club appearance indicates how Warren would hold up under the scrutiny of an Indigenous critic who is well-versed on the crucial nature of Native sovereignty—let alone the disastrously racist president she’d be facing in the debates should she claim the Democratic nomination—then I’m left to wonder how seriously Warren takes her misstep. That is, did she ever really reach a point of internal reckoning that allowed her to understand the root of the criticism that flooded her campaign last October, or has that facade of responsibility merely taken the form of hollow acknowledgments that chiefly aim to serve as an escape hatch? If her stale responses today are all we’re going to get, then it’s the latter by a landslide.
Of course, one interview is not indicative of Warren’s entire comprehension of the subject. There’s plenty of time left to correct course and face the music in a meaningful, direct manner. The debates haven’t even started yet, and Warren made efforts to reach out both to the directly affected Cherokee Nation as well as other Native leaders. Among the available candidates, she has the best legislative record of working with tribal nations, including the recently maligned Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. But at some point, even if you recognize her as your candidate of choice, a final ruling is going to have to come down. Her apologies have all been forced upon her by reporting or widespread criticism. Even today, she was very clearly longing to talk about literally anything else the moment the DNA test was broached. That does not inspire confidence, and it surely will not win her the necessary closure that some Native people still require.
You can watch the full interview below; the DNA questions start right on the 20-minute mark: