A reader [see update] sent me the link to the article below which examines the “box checker” phenomenon in college and law school admissions.  I think the same analysis applies with regard to professional advancement in fields where there is enormous pressure to diversify, such as academia.

Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be Cherokee for professional purposes was just part of a larger societal phenomenon, as examined by Lawrence Baca, Former President, National Native American Bar Association, American Indians and the “Box Checker” Phenomenon (starting at p. 70 of the link):

American Indians are less than 2.0% of the national population. We have the least voting influence of any racial group in America and we are the easiest to be overlooked in the racial diversity discourse.  While we have many diversity issues in common with other racial and ethnic minorities, there is one diversity issue in higher education that is ours and ours alone. For affirmative action purposes we are the race non-minorities are more likely to claim they are. Non-minorities may lie about their race to get admitted to college and law school and the race they are most likely to choose to lie about being is American Indian….

The well-known and respected American Indian, Vine Deloria Jr., in his book Custer Died For Your Sins (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1969), commented on meeting hundreds of people whom he believed to be White but who were anxious to tell him of their Indian heritage. He wrote of a common phenomenon in that the overwhelming majority of people who claimed to be Indian said they were Cherokee and their ancestor was always a “princess.” He expressed concern that three generations back there were no Indian men among the Cherokee. Every
Indian I know is familiar with this phenomenon: you are at a social function, you might be wearing Indian jewelry, and someone approaches; they appear Anglo and they ask, “You’re Indian, right? I’m part Cherokee. My great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess.” This is not something that happens to any other racial or ethnic minority group.

Baca goes on to note the low graduation-to-growth rate for Native Americans who go to law school, meaning that there are far fewer Native American lawyers than one would expect given the number of graduates who claim to be Native American.  This suggests that there is a high percentage of “box checkers” who claim Native American status only to gain an admission advantage (emphasis in original):

The Census reports showed 1,502 American Indian lawyers in 1990.1 That number increases to 1,730 for the 2000 Census.2 That is an increase in American Indian lawyers of only 228 in ten years.  That is an over-all growth of 15%. What makes the +228 most interesting is when you compare it to graduation statistics. A few years ago the American Bar Association (ABA) printed dis-aggregatedstatistics of JDs granted by race for all accredited law schools in America. According to those reports, between 1990 and 2000, ABA-accredited law schools reported giving JDs to 2,497 American Indians.  Let me repeat, Indian lawyers increased by 228 between 1990 and 2000 while law schools reported graduating 2,497 American Indian students. Using these numbers I have created what I call the graduation-to-growth rate. When you divide the number of new lawyers by the number of reported
graduates you get a ratio that allows cross-race comparisons. For American Indians, the ratio of new lawyers to reported law graduates is 9.13%.

Here is Baca’s chart showing the growth rate for other groups, all of which are a multiple of that for Native Americans:

It significant that those who falsely claim to be Native American, and particularly Cherokee, tend to drop that claim when it no longer is needed.

That pattern was evident in Elizabeth Warren’s career, when she stopped listing herself in the law faculty directory as Native American (which showed up as “minority” in the directory) after she joined Harvard Law.

Other than reporting to Harvard for federal filing purposes that she was Native American (how could she not when she had told them), there is no evidence that after reaching Harvard Law Warren took any interest in anything Native American.  While Harvard promoted Warren as a Native American hire in the late 1990s, there is no evidence that after joining Harvard Law Warren promoted herself as Native American.

Warren went down a well-traveled path.  We can’t prove that Warren did gain an advantage from checking the box, but there is substantial evidence she tried.

Update 7-7-2012:  At the time of the post I could not remember the source of the link, but it has been called to my attention that Rob Eno of Red Mass Group wrote about the Baca article, Lawrence J. Baca and the History of American Indian Law School “Box Checkers”.