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Elizabeth Warren
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Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. (Justin Wan/Sioux City Journal via AP)

Senator Elizabeth Warren is apologizing for listing “American Indian” as her race on a form she filed with the Texas Bar Association in 1986.

She clearly wrote “American Indian” in the race category, because that’s the story she was told growing up.

“My brothers and I learned from our mom and our dad and our brothers and our sisters and those were our family stories,” she said of growing up in Oklahoma.

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She now realizes that was wrong. But what’s interesting to me is what compelled her to come to that conclusion.

“I am not a tribal citizen,” Warren said. “Tribes and only tribes determine citizenship.”

She came to that conclusion because the Cherokee Nation employs officials whose job it is to determine who can call themselves a Cherokee. And they concluded that she can’t. Case closed.

Well, between growing diversity, and genetic testing, we are going to have more and more cases like this. And race determines a lot – everything from whether you satisfy a quota to what jokes you can safely tell. So we have to agree on which groups get to decide what race you can claim, the way the Cherokees can decide who’s a Cherokee.

A panel of historians? A government identity commission? Each group will have to have some organization with the authority to say no. Otherwise, as we learned in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s case, people are free to check any box they like.

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