For the seven million people who vacation in Hawaii every year, it is a magical island destination. For its 1.2 million residents, the 50th state is, in the words of its senior senator, Daniel Inouye, “one of the greatest examples of a multiethnic society living in relative peace.”
But that peace is fraying as tensions rise over a bill the U.S. Senate will vote on next month that would create an independent, race-based government for Native Hawaiians. What some see as redress for past injustices, others see as the creation of a racial spoils system that could treat neighbors differently depending on whether or not they have a drop of native blood.
A Saturday rally of several thousand people here brought the state’s divisions to the surface in raw terms. The protestors were angry at a decision last week by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the Hawaiians-only admissions policy of the exclusive private Kamehameha Schools. The court ruled that the policy violated federal civil rights laws by imposing “an absolute bar to admission of those of the non-preferred race.” Supporters of the racial preference policy say any change will reduce the chances of Native Hawaiians, many of whom are from poor backgrounds, getting a good education.
Amid a sea of upside-down state flags and signs challenging the legitimacy of the U.S. government in Hawaii, school trustee Nainoa Thompson told the crowd that the Kamehameha schools are “the last hope of the Hawaiian people.” Donna Downey, one of those attending the rally, told me that the court decision was only the latest example of “greedy” people trying to “take all the privileges” now accorded to Native Hawaiians.
No one denies that Native Hawaiians have grievances from the prestatehood era, when the islands were controlled by big sugar and pineapple plantation owners who gave the rights of natives short shrift. But nearly a half century after statehood it is naive to think that federal civil rights laws don’t apply to the islands simply because of the 2,500 miles of water separating them from the mainland.
Cooler heads have advised Kamehameha trustees that they should return to the original wording of the 1884 will of Hawaii’s Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, which established the school. The Ninth Circuit ruling noted that the princess’s will did not “require the use of race as an admission prerequisite” and indeed stipulated that instruction should be in English.
“The school is now backed by a $6.2 billion trust that is more than enough money to fund scholarships for anyone they wanted to admit while at the same time charging full tuition to non-Native Hawaiians,” says Bobbie Slater, a former teacher at Kamehameha. But instead the school plans to appeal the Ninth Circuit ruling. Eric Grant, a California lawyer who is representing a student challenging the Kamehameha admissions policy, says the school has rejected suggestions that it admit the boy, now entering his senior year, pending outcome of the appeal. Last Friday he said he got a call from the school and “the trustees didn’t give me a reason; they just said no–or rather, they said, ‘Hell no.’ ” Mr. Grant says the school’s behavior reminds him of the late George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.
Far from recognizing the school’s weak legal position, almost every politician in the state has scrambled to stand in solidarity with it. Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, introduced herself at the rally on Saturday as a “haole”–a foreigner–angry at the court ruling. But she carefully skirted the issue of whether or not the school’s admissions policy violated civil rights law. “Regardless of the legal basis for this position, this is not a just position,” she told the crowd. She later told the Honolulu Advertiser that she believed the school’s admissions policy is “not about race, it’s about a political relationship between the Hawaiian people and the American government.”
Noting that many students at the Kamehameha school are 95% white or Chinese and only 5% Hawaiian, the governor claims “the school is a perfect example of the great diversity” of the state. She says the Ninth Circuit ruling makes it all the more imperative for Congress to pass a bill by Sen. Daniel Akaka that would create a separate “government entity” for Native Hawaiians. Then entities such as Kamehameha would have more protection from civil rights lawsuits.
But the very fact that so few students at the Kamehameha school are recognizably Native Hawaiian raises the issue of how much a separate government as envisioned by the Akaka bill is possible or desirable. While everyone in the state professes to admire Polynesian culture and many ethnicities study it, only about 240,000 of Hawaii’s people classify themselves as Native Hawaiians. Just 5,000 or so–less than 0.5% of the state’s population–are of pure native blood. Over 90% of self-described natives are more than half some other ethnicity.
But that hasn’t stopped an explosion in funding for those who have Native Hawaiian blood. Anyone with even one drop of blood qualifies for Office of Hawaiian Affairs programs and have access to exclusive schools such as Kamehameha. Haunani Apoliona, chairman of the board of trustees of the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, told me that passage of the Akaka bill is essential to expand to help the 18% of Native Hawaiian families with children who are living in poverty.
But she has also told National Public Radio that if the bill passes, the new “native Hawaiian governing entity” will enter into discussions with the state and federal governments “as to any transfer of land and/or natural resources and/or any other assets.” Such talk prompted the Grassroot Institute, a local free-market think tank, to take out a newspaper ad last Saturday showing all the lands it said “are on the table for transfer to the new government.”
All of the talk about privileges and land transfers saddens Rubellite Johnson, a scholar who has been named a “Living Treasure of Hawaii” for her work in translating early Hawaiian-language documents. Born in 1932 to a Native Hawaiian family on Kauai, Ms. Johnson helped establish the Hawaiian studies program at the University of Hawaii and taught there for many years. “It doesn’t promote harmony to expect others today to pay you constantly for what was wrong back then,” she told me. “When does it stop?”
Ms. Johnson laments that more people in Hawaii are giving up on integration and listening to those with “hate in their hearts.” She says much of the history taught at her old university and now used to justify the Akaka bill is “a distortion of the truth.” For example, her studies convince her that the U.S. was “not directly involved” in the forced abdication of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 and that indeed much of the Hawaiian monarchy supported the annexation of the islands. She believes that “rather than talk about how haoles stole the land, people should take responsibility for their own actions and work with others of good will to better themselves.”
While her advice might be the best way to preserve the famous “aloha” spirit and racial harmony for which Hawaii is justly famous, current trends are moving towards further politicization and polarization. If the Akaka bill creating a separate race-based government in Hawaii becomes law, look for other racial and ethnic groups on the mainland to view it as a model for their own bids for political spoils.
”’This column originally was published on on Monday, Aug. 8, 2005, in OpinionJournal.com, a publication of the Wall Street Journal and is reprinted with permission”’
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