Iowa Politics — Thu. Feb. 07, 2019

Iowa Politics — Thu. Feb. 07, 2019

Checking the Box

I’ll take Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at her word when she says her family told her there was Native American blood in their history. Watching those genealogy television shows has taught us that we all seem to have a little of everything in us.

But let’s also not pretend that she didn’t try to use that to her advantage when trying to advance in the world of academe, either. I don’t blame her for trying to use every lawful advantage, because the system is set up to expect that.

More than 25 years ago, I was applying for various jobs at colleges and universities, and each asked you to fill out a form on racial identification. There were boxes for Native Americans, for those of Asian descent, and for African-Americans…and typically, a box that simply said “White”, or perhaps “Caucasian”. That was the only one that worked for me, so that’s the one I would check. And I was somewhat underwhelmed by the response back from these prospective employers.

Then one job at the University of Iowa opened up…it was not one I was overly qualified for, and in my mind not as qualified as the other jobs I had sought with no success. But I applied anyway, and found the racial identification section for that job to be different. There were two boxes for Whites…Whites of Western European descent, and Whites of Eastern European descent. I could trace my family back to Eastern Europe, so I checked that box.

Lo and behold, I got an interview. Not the job, but I made the cut to the next round.

Did that subtle distinction make the difference? You can sense my feelings on the topic, only supported by spending a quarter-century in higher ed, with too many examples to mention her of favoritism going to those who could claim membership in traditionally disadvantaged classes.

So I certainly don’t blame Sen. Warren for using what she could to get ahead. But you have to come by it honestly. And using it as a qualification for elective office is quite different than using it to help a college or university pad its diversity stats.