Washington Post editorial writer and liberal blogger Jonathan Capehart is puzzled. Why does the "non-issue" of Harvard Law professor and Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren's Native American ancestry "require so much attention?" he asked last week.
When Warren was teaching at Pennsylvania, Texas and Houston law schools, she identified herself as Indian -- or, to be politically correct, Native American.
Then she was hired at Harvard and dropped the Native American from her biographical description. Harvard Law today says it has one faculty member of Native American heritage. But it won't say which one.
Capehart argues that this shouldn't matter because Warren's claim is accurate. When the issue first broke, I thought that was likely. Warren grew up in Oklahoma, much of which was once the Indian Territory. Many people there have Indian ancestors.
And a researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society found that in a transcript of an 1894 marriage application, Warren's great-great-great-grandmother listed herself as Cherokee.
It's a heritage to be proud of. The Cherokee were one of the "civilized tribes," and their leader Sequoyah created an ingenious 86-letter alphabet. You can see it, together with English, on street signs in Tahlequah, Okla.
Let's assume the 1894 document is accurate. That makes Warren one-thirty-second Native American. George Zimmerman, the Florida accused murderer, had a black grandmother. That makes him a quarter black, four times as black as Warren is Indian, though The New York Times describes him as a "white Hispanic."
What's wrong with what Warren did? Capehart seems to understand that. "The implication in these stories is that Warren used minority status to advance her career," he writes.
Well, yes. When she was hired, Harvard Law had just denied tenure to a woman teacher and was being criticized for not having enough minorities and females on its faculty.
Of course, Harvard and Warren say her claim to minority status had nothing to do with her being hired. And if it did, no one is going to say so. Nothing to see here; just move on.
The important thing is the Warren story illustrates the rottenness of our system of racial quotas and preferences. Although the people in charge of administering them deny this, just about everyone with eyes to see knows that you're more likely to be hired and promoted if you have checked one of the non-Asian minority boxes: black, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander.
You don't hear Republicans criticizing this system -- and it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who introduced it in the federal government in 1970. It quickly spread to academia and corporate America.
People who classify themselves as approved minorities get into schools and get jobs that they wouldn't if they classified themselves as white. Not surprisingly, some people, perhaps including Warren, game this system.
The original justification was that this would overcome the disadvantages that American blacks endured during decades of slavery and segregation. That made sense to many people at the time. Those disadvantages were real, and most Americans wanted to be fair.
But the extension of minority status to other groups and the perpetuation of racial preferences for nearly half a century since the abolition of legal segregation mean that there is increasingly little correlation between membership in the favored categories and genuine disadvantage.
Black leaders lament that black college admissions increasingly favor affluent blacks (Barack Obama has made this point) and recent immigrants from Africa. Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka sought to separate Pacific Islanders from Asians, since the former are more disadvantaged.
One solution would be to ban self-description and come up with rigorous definitions of race, like Louisiana's post-Reconstruction racial code or South Africa's apartheid laws. But those don't seem like very attractive models.
An alternative is to ditch racial quotas and preferences altogether. Retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb has made a proposal for something like this.
The strongest argument for this is not that some whites (and Asians) get passed over; these individuals will probably do fine nonetheless. The strongest argument against the system is that it casts a pall of illegitimacy over the genuine achievements of the intended beneficiaries.
In the meantime, what may undermine racial quotas and preferences most effectively is ridicule. For isn't the idea that the blond, blue-eyed Elizabeth Warren suffered some terrible disadvantage and is in need of special preference because she is one-thirty-second Cherokee just laugh-out-loud funny?