A bitter race debate in a US Senate campaign reflects on Australia’s own recent “White is the New Black” controversy. Ethnicity is an emerging political topography, with serious money and clout involved.
Australians generally don't like to be seen as overly aware of race. We have self-consciously asserted equality under the southern sun as a value fundamental to our multicultural society.
Our catch cry is, you're all right mate, no matter who you are, or where you come from.
And yet, as highlighted in Australia's latest census, and recently covered by The Global Mail
(http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/gypsies-the-little-tramp-and-thieves/77/), who we say we are is important. University of Chicago anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff also made this point in a recent lecture in Sydney. The significance we place on identity – particularly self-identification – is a notable modern trend. It accounts, in part at least, for the fact that the number of Australians who identified as indigenous on the census rose by 34 per cent over the past decade, according to the raw data; by comparison, the overall number of Australians increased by only about 15 per cent during the same period.
The Comaroffs (see video) call this kind of racial self-identification — which has increasing cachet in complex and generally liberal democratic societies — part of our search for meaning. Everybody today has roots somewhere else, and we all want to know what may have made us who we are. Most of this personal archaeology simply satisfies our own curiosity. I once encountered a friend in his kitchen with a genealogical map spread across the table, and a grin almost as wide. He had just managed to trace his family (or interpret his lineage) back to Charlemagne. But go back about 200 years and a genealogical tree begins to include ancestors in the millions. Most of Europe and America could probably claim the same ancestor.
Some modern claims are altogether more serious. These are the restorative-justice claims, seeking compensation for past wrongs to particular ethnic groups who suffered precisely because of their identity. The Comaroffs examined such cases in their thought-provoking 2009 book, Ethnicity Inc. Among the cases they analyse, for example, are the Roma (gypsies), who
sued IBM for that company's role in the mass killing of Roma by the Nazis in World War II; and American Indians, whose dislocation and decimation has been recognised by restorative programs in the US and Canada. So how we identify ourselves, and how others see us, comes with a price tag, often terrible in the past, sometimes forming rightful compensation today. And that seems to makes it ripe territory for a fight.
In October 2011, Australian journalist Andrew Bolt was judicially censured for a series of articles he had written on Aboriginality. Prosecuted under the Racial Discrimination Act, Bolt was found by the court to have written articles that were likely to have offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated "some Aboriginal persons of mixed descent who have a fairer, rather than darker,
skin", imputing that their claims to Aboriginal ethnicity were motivated by opportunism. The Court also found his articles contained factual inaccuracies. But some aspects raised by Bolt's articles remain contentious and unanswered. It's just that they got lost in all the outrage about Bolt the right-wing commentator, and what some saw as his bare-knuckle, tabloid approach to a sensitive public issue. So are discussions about power, preferment, and compensation that
flows from ethnicity to be drowned out by sheer force of indignation, or fear of being labelled 'racist'?
academic and son of one of Australia's most senior (now retired) Aboriginal policemen, poses, in a video interview with The Global Mail, the query so central to Bolt's articles: should all people who identify as being Aboriginal be entitled to benefit equally?
The same question has been thrown into stark relief in the course of a current US senate election campaign, in the state of Massachusetts, the home state of clan Kennedy. Of the many heated subjects that erupt in a modern US political campaign, perhaps none is so volatile as that of race relations, with spurious questions about the birthplace of President Obama keeping
the issue of blood and origin on the boil. This particular election pits the man newly incumbent to Ted Kennedy's seat, the affable, ute-driving Republican Senator and former Cosmo centerfold, Scott Brown, against the Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor, renowned financial consumer policy advocate, and an advisor to President Obama. But critics of Warren pit her against herself: on one hand, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed gal from Oklahoma, daughter of a janitor and a one-time waitress, who carved out a brilliant public career through sheer hard work and intellectual capacity… and on the other, the Elizabeth Warren who claimed Cherokee ancestry that, her critics claim, may have helped her, ultimately, to get tenure at Harvard. Hostile commentators have dubbed her "Spouting Bull" and "Fauxcahontas."
The electoral stakes are high, though the actual bone of contention is small. Between 1986 and 1995, Warren listed herself as part-Native American in the Association of American Law Schools Directory, at a time when Harvard and other law schools were under intense scrutiny to demonstrate their affirmative-action policies. Warren claimed a great-great-great-grandmother
as Cherokee, and 1/32 of her blood as qualification, which was dismissed by one spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation as a "margarita-sized grain of salt" but was large enough to have Harvard tout her ancestry as evidence of its diverse recruitment policies, as she was appointed to a job there in 1992.
Warren has defended herself. "Being Native American has been part of my story I guess since the day I was born," she says. Prior to the media storm about her ancestry, Warren had not mentioned it on the senatorial campaign trail. Nor, she claims, did she use her heritage to gain preference through law school or in her first jobs.
Charles Fried, a Harvard professor who presented Warren for recruitment, says he did not mention her Indian ancestry because he knew nothing of it. Warren says that she was unaware of Harvard's promotion of her ancestry as evidence of its diversity. As the controversy grew, agenealogist discovered a document from 1894 supporting her claim. High-profile Native Americans have weighed in. An Associated Press report quotes David Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, discounting Warren's claim on the basis that it is based on "allegiance rather than biology or ancestry". Conversely, writing in The Washington Post another Native American, the writer David Treuer, put it as a matter of choice: "Elizabeth Warren says she's Native American. So she is." One self-identified Cherokee internet pressure group called Cherokees Demand Truth From Elizabeth Warren, has posted: "You forget, it isn't who you claim, but instead, who claims you."
The contradiction inherent in affirmative-action legislation is that it… discriminates. It does so necessarily, as it is designed as a corrective to centuries of discrimination for which societies like Australia have legislated or adjudicated to make amends. But there is a profound question around how well affirmative-action policies are calibrated, and whether they most effectively help those most in need.
Former High Court Chief Justice Harry Gibbs argued in a 1998 speech that claims exercised on the basis of blood, rather than disadvantage inherently flaws Australia's indigenous compensatory process. Dillon says that benefits that flow from being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and are meant to accrue to people still enduring gross marginalisation and disadvantage, sometimes provide a boost to people who could manage quite well without them. Dillon (who has an Aboriginal father and an Anglo-Australian mother) is one. He's made the point that benefits he rightfully (but not, according to his own description, needfully) enjoyed, helped him to achieve his education.
A Tweet sent last year by one urban-based Aboriginal woman, Professor Larissa Behrendt, about another, rural-based Aborigine, Bess Price, seemed to reveal a deep divide within the Aboriginal community over access to privileges, including the right to speak on behalf of Aboriginal people as a whole despite vastly different experiences of discrimination and disadvantage.
The bitter scrap, made much of by the mainstream press demonstrated the potential for conflict as indigenous people seek to define themselves and, by extension, exclude others
because of blood, culture, and actual experience of disadvantage. These perceptual squabbles swirl around what constitutes an "authentic" Aborigine.
In the US, in places such as Nevada, it can mean big business to be recognised as a member of an Indian nation, with financial dividends flowing from special commercial opportunities, namely casino licenses. As the Comoroffs said in their Sydney lecture, "The more like profit-seeking corporations indigenous groups become, the more the terms of membership privilege birth, blood, and biology over social or cultural attachments. And the more they tend to be
As Australia rides its mining-boom bronco, what is the potential for a US-like struggle over "authenticity" if, for example, mining rights and other benefits become conflated with Aboriginal claims? Are the signs of those contests already emerging in the form of some of the settlements between mining companies and Native Title claimants, or in some of the public intercommunal slinging matches over who is, and who isn't Aboriginal?
In their book and lectures, the Comoroffs select some choice examples at the extreme edge of what they call "the occult power of capital to manufacture identity," and the strange results that can ensue: Maryann Martin, an LA-based African-American hitherto uninformed about her heritage, became aware that her dead grandmother had been the last of the Augustine Band of Cahuila Indians. In the 1990s she moved her brood — four children of her two gang-murdered brothers and three of her own — onto her newly discovered ancestor's abandoned reservation in Riverside County, California. Government agencies helped to clear the 200 hectares of household garbage, car batteries, animal carcasses, appliances, and thousands of discarded tyres. In 1994, as tribal chairwoman, Ms Martin signed an agreement with Paragon Gaming LLC of Las Vegas for a casino that opened for business in 2002. "We will not see another tribe disappear," said one Native American leader of the newly certified ethnic group.
In 2005, Sacramento bookkeeper Rhonda L. Morningstar Pope successfully ousted
Donnamarie Potts as tribal leader of the Me-Wuk Indian tribe. Potts, earlier recognised as tribal leader by the Department of the Interior because of her adoption by Louie and Annie Oliver, the last (last but one, as it turned out) of the Me-Wuk, who had occupied a trailer on a 27-hectare plot of land deemed tribal territory, had been about to strike it rich with a casino deal.
Evincing horror that the name of her no-longer-existent "people" should be desecrated by grubby commerce, Pope's claim was recognised by the courts. "We are reminded every day of what our ancestors sacrificed for us," said Pope… who promptly signed a deal with a new partner to develop a casino in order to "provide economic viability and security for future generations," those generations including, presumably, her brood of children. The Me-Wuk now
have language classes, and have managed somehow to revive a host of 'traditional' markers, such as dancing ceremonies.
The Pomo and Me-Wuk people had been effectively wiped out as identifiable tribes, due to disease, colonial slaughter by Spaniards and Americans, harmful legislation, and the associated dislocation, marginalisation and communal decay so recognisable to Australian indigenous groups. And in theory, the restoration of land title, rights and economic power is an appropriate corrective.
The irony of this particular chapter in the fraught US post-colonial relationship with its indigenous people is, to use a Comoroff phrase, the "dialectic of capitalism and culture", whereby large corporate gaming conglomerates have teamed up with the tailend remains of tribes to take advantage of what the Comoroffs call a trade in liberal-democratic guilt.
And this was Bolt's larger point (no defence of Bolt intended): The incongruity of the idea that a person not particularly affected by discrimination might gain advantage from membership in an ethnic group while the vast majority of their people still struggle. The confusion over authenticity grows when, ludicrously, men like Dallas Scott who, despite appearance, culture, a prominent family tree of activist Aboriginal people, and a history of personal disadvantage are compelled to defend their Aboriginality. On his blog Scott has ridiculed the notion of some Aborigines (he calls them "fauxborigines") comparing themselves with Aborigines whose lives are retarded by daily discrimination and disadvantage. It raises some of the same fundamental issues that were at the heart of Bolt's articles.
Worse, according to Scott and Dillon, this dilution of "authenticity", and the consequent dilution of benefits intended to correct disadvantage, has a detrimental effect on Aborigines by diluting statistics that would otherwise be much worse. For Dillon, "political correctness is killing more Aboriginals than smoking".
The extraordinary increase in the number of Australians counted by census as indigenous over the past decade is attributable to many factors that academic demographers are still studying (incidentally, the same steep increases occur in New Zealand, the US, Canada, and Scandinavia). Kim Johnstone, a senior demographer with the NSW Department of Planning, says that most
likely it is a combination of improvements in census outreach, higher fertility rates, decreased stigma and greater pride in ethnicity, along with the greater incorporation of indigenous culture into Australian public life, better communal organisation, and the search by many modern Australians for their authentic past.
But it is also, according to Dillon, "an indication of those people who for whatever reason wanted to jump on the indigenous bandwagon". It is clear that resentment exists between those who continue to suffer discrimination, degradation, and disadvantage because of their Aboriginality (which includes Aborigines both white in appearance and dark), and those who never have, and never will encounter disadvantage. It is, to use a Comoroff phrase, a battle of "ID-ology".
To return to the US experience for a moment. There are 566 federally recognised Native American tribes, each with its own rules for membership, according to the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some tribes require a "blood quantum" measurement of as much as one-half or one-quarter Indian ancestry; others require a certain place of birth or residence; while others allow for self identification or adoption. Of the 4.5 million Americans who, according to the bureau, claim Native Indian ancestry, only two million are recognised as such by tribal governments personified by Rhonda Pope. At present, the question of who is an Indian, and just who should decide that, has a real impact on the programming of public funds and the allocation of commercial benefits.
In Australia, as in the United States, establishing just who is Aboriginal, and thus is presumed to have a claim to land, is statutorily defined, and largely left to personal choice and communal acceptance. A person must identify as Aboriginal, have Aboriginal ancestry, and be accepted as such by a recognised Aboriginal community, and these facts ascertained by the 114 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations listed in the Yellow Pages.
The Lumbee professor David Wilkins says that when he asked his own family what it was that defined a Navajo, "one said you have to speak the language. Another said you have to live within our sacred mountains. Another said no, you have to take part in ceremonial life. All this in one family!"
Modern Australians generally choose to see themselves as egalitarians, and certainly not as racists. But, as the Comoroffs write of this "counterpoint between cosmopolitanism and indigeneity", there is an inherent contradiction at the heart of modern liberal-democratic and inclusive societies like ours, which increasingly rest on the desire for self-identification and
"authenticity" — sexual, religious, spiritual, lingual, social and racial. That inherent factor is discrimination, with all its repellant qualities, especially when potential advantages are at stake.
As for Elizabeth Warren, she has given an explanation that rings as authentically as any other: "These are my family stories… since I had been [sic] a little girl," she says. "I still have a picture on my mantel and it is a picture my mother had before that — a picture of my grandfather. And my Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a 1,000 times and remarked that he — her
father, my Papaw — had high cheek bones like all of the Indians do. Because that is how she saw it."