Elizabeth Warren has been my Senator since 2013. I don’t recognize the woman on the campaign trail.
My senator did not always 'have a plan for that.'
On February 9, 2019 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) announced her presidential bid, citing President Donald Trump as “just the latest and most extreme symptom of what’s gone wrong in America” and calling for “big, structural change.” In the months since announcing her presidential bid, Senator Warren has unveiled plans to achieve an ambitious, liberal political agenda, among those are “100% Clean Energy for America”, “Ending the Opioid Crisis”, “Universal Child Care”, and “A Fair and Welcoming Immigration System”, according to her website.
With her also publicly announced support for the abolition of the electoral college, estimating and distributing reparations to descendants of enslaved persons, and a comprehensive debt relief plan for Puerto Rico, the Internet has coined the phrase “Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that.” In May 2019, the senator apparently even called comedian Ashley Nicole Black to give relationship advice. Black tweeted: “Guess who’s crying and shaking and just talked to Elizabeth Warren on the phone?!?!? We have a plan to get my mom grandkids, it’s very comprehensive, and it does involve raising taxes on billionaires.”
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Being among the first 2020 contenders to address the disproportionate impact of the maternal mortality epidemic among Black birthgivers and the unique obstacles women of color face in pursuing financial security for ourselves and our families, Senator Warren has also been endorsed by Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay and earned praise from Senior Legal Analyst at Rewire.News, Imani Gandy.
As such, most criticisms concerning Senator Warren’s electability have been justifiably exposed as absolute misogynistic bullshit, pivoting to the unprecedented number of women currently serving in U.S. Congress and rattling off the number of votes Secretary Hillary Clinton won to secure the popular vote by back in 2016. Even so, if there was ever a “good time” for a (straight, cisgender, wealthy, white) woman to become President of United States of America, many think now would be that time.
But not everyone’s criticisms of Senator Warren and her campaign are poorly-masked misogyny. Some criticisms, including my own, stem from an inability to reconcile Senator Warren’s past with her present. Having been her constituent for several years, I’ve spent the months since she announced her presidential bid both struggling to recognize the woman on the campaign trail and asking myself why I never had the privilege to know this woman as my senator.
It is well documented that, prior to her visibility in the fight for economic justice and corporate responsibility, Senator Warren was a proud member of the Republican Party and sat on the opposite side of the fight the nation now associates her with. In contrast to her description of herself as being non-partisan and apolitical during the earlier parts of her life, her friends and colleagues remember her as a “diehard conservative”, according to Politico. Professor of Law Calvin Johnson, a colleague of Senator Warren at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s, told Politico, “Liz was sometimes surprisingly anti-consumer in her attitude.”
However, some label bringing up Senator Warren’s conservative past a “low blow”, citing the commonality of political evolution among members of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Similar to Senator Warren, Secretary Clinton was much more conservative in her early adulthood and at the start of her career than she is now. For evidence of a more extreme political shift that some may say is more comparable to Senator Warren’s, look no further than President Trump. Since 1987, he has changed his party affiliation five times, even identifying as a Democrat in 2001.
Senator Warren’s political 360° is not as unusual or drastic as our whiplash makes it seem, which is why her supporters and even political journalists urge their fellow Americans to embrace Senator Warren’s political evolution rather than being so skeptical of it, especially since Senator Warren has maintained her affiliation with the Democratic Party since 1996. When asked why she left the Republican Party when she did, Senator Warren replied:
“I was with the GOP for a while because I really thought that it was a party that was principled in its conservative approach to economics and to markets. And I feel like the GOP party just left that. They moved to a party that said, ‘No, it’s not about a level playing field. It’s now about a field that’s gotten tilted.’ And they really stood up for the big financial institutions when the big financial institutions are just hammering middle class American families. I just feel like that’s a party that moved way, way away.”
I suppose there is nothing quite like finding out that you are the metaphorical boogeyman to inspire a political evolution, especially when you’re just beginning your decade-spanning cosplay of an Indigenous woman. This likely explains why it wasn’t the rampant racism within the Republican Party during this time that flipped the switch for Senator Warren.
In 1996, the same year that Senator Warren registered as a Democrat and allegedly turned a new political leaf, Harvard Law School News Director Mike Chmura began touting Warren as the first woman of color to be given tenure at the institution in the Harvard Crimson. It is worth noting that a few years prior to Warren’s hiring, prominent law professor and critical race scholar Derrick Bell was dismissed from the Harvard School of Law faculty for protesting the lack of a permanent Black woman academic on faculty. A 1997 Fordham Law Review piece says of Warren:
“There are few women of color who hold important positions in the academy, Fortune 500 companies, or other prominent fields or industries…This is not inconsequential. Diversifying these arenas, in part by adding qualified women of color to their ranks, remains important for many reasons. For one, there are scant women of color as role models. In my three years at Stanford Law School, there were no professors who were women of color. Harvard Law School hired its first woman of color, Elizabeth Warren, in 1995.”
Since at least 1986, Warren had been indicating that she was Native American on documents she submitted to various state bars and to her employers.
In 1999, Harvard School of Law published its affirmative action plan on its website, again listing a single Native American professor, Elizabeth Warren. These statistics are strictly based on the way employees identify themselves. It has been reported that a single Native American professor was listed on Harvard School of Law’s website until 2011, the year Warren declared her intention to run for Senator of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
After declaring her intention to run for the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat, President Barack Obama joined her on several occasions in hopes of inspiring the Obama Coalition to elect her in November 2012, calling her a “fierce advocate for the middle class.” It’s unclear how much, if anything at all, President Obama knew of Warren’s past or whether he would have campaigned for her despite it just to ensure Senator Kennedy’s seat would not be filled by former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown.
Regardless of how aware President Obama and the DNC were of the extent of Warren’s claims of Native ancestry, Senator Brown sure knew something. During the Senate race, Senator Brown accused Warren of “participating in Harvard’s diversity sham” by allowing the institution to list her as Native American. Democratic voters in Massachusetts grew concerned. It was at the time Senator Warren made the decision to continue claiming Native American ancestry rather than coming clean about her past. Senator Warren validated her claims by citing her grandfather’s “high cheekbones”, going on to say “all of the Indians have them”. As cringeworthy and blatantly racist as those remarks were, they weren’t enough to keep Warren from that Senate seat.
Having been a constituent of Senator Warren from 2013 – 2017 and remembering a great deal about her first senate campaign, it’s very confusing how exactly she’s now potentially our next president. At the same time, I almost want to applaud her for being able to rise to prominence when her initial appeal was simply not being Scott Brown. What I find to be most nauseating about the Warren campaign is not only that this nation has allowed her to completely divorce herself from who she used to proudly be, but also that this campaign is the first time I’ve seen her embrace women of color outside of pretending to be one.
My senator never spoke about the disproportionate impact of maternal mortality on Black birthgivers and other people of color.
My senator never spoke about the unique difficulties women of color face in pursuing even the smallest amount of financial security for ourselves and our families.
My senator never spoke about the financial abuse Puerto Rico has been subjected to as a colony of the United States of America.
My senator never spoke about the reparations that the descendants of enslaved people are owed.
My senator did not always “have a plan for that.”
My senator did, however, respond to President Trump’s racist nickname for her by flaunting the miracles of race science to validate her claims to Native ancestry. I guess coming forward as a whopping 1/1024th Native American so that you can postpone apologies and accountability, regardless of how your tenured position at Harvard as a Native faculty member is going to fuel anti-affirmative action arguments for decades to come, seemed like the best way to go. Of course, she did apologize, so I guess we should all flock to her side as she breaks the glass ceiling.
My senator was among the eleven Democrats to approve Ben Carson’s nomination as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development—a dog whistle if I’ve ever heard one. Of course, Senator Warren was then forced to vote against Carson after taking heat from progressives who argued that his “inner city” upbringing does not negate his violent homophobia, transantagonism, misogyny, islamophobia, and total lack of experience working within a federal agency.
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My senator was only ever elected because she was not Scott Brown and knew all of the right things to say .As much as I would love to join many of the Black women I admire in enthusiastically backing Senator Warren, my experiences as her constituent have me on high alert.
Sure, she isn’t the worst Democrat on that stage. Sure, it’s likely her prospective vice president and cabinet would keep her accountable to the promises that she’s making to the American people. I just believe that this political moment requires more than who Senator Warren is not. And honestly, being a 2020 contender is much farther than any of us should have let her get.
Indigo, who uses both they, them and he, him gender pronouns, is a Black Puerto Rican lesbian essayist and recovering community organizer. While pursuing their undergraduate degree, Indigo served as the inaugural president of their campus’ Queer and Trans People of Color Coalition, organizing educational program on social, economic, and political issues impacting primarily Black and Latinx queer and/or trans persons. Currently, Indigo is pursuing a juris doctorate degree at CUNY School of Law.