Hilo. Hawaii—Americans who visit Hawaii often feel they are in a foreign country, and if those tourists cared about the island’s politics that might make them even more likely to wonder if they really are in the United States.
Three recent developments raise the question of whether the people and politicians in the nation’s 50th state have much in common with the traditions and Constitution of the nation of which they are part.
Hawaii’s demographics—more than two-thirds of residents are of Asian descent—lead to the cultural differences with the mainland. Its physical isolation exacerbates a sense of Hawaii exceptionalism.
Nothing illustrates the island’s political mind-set better than a long-running school admissions case that would likely be laughed out of court elsewhere in America. The arguments made for it—and even embraced by the state’s first Republican governor in 40 years—sound eerily familiar to those of 1960s southern segregationists.
For 118 years, the Kamehameha Schools have limited enrollment to those with native-Hawaiian blood. Its highly regarded K-12 schools are funded by an almost $7 billion trust left by 19th century Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop.
Supporters claim that because no tax money is involved discrimination is permissible, although federal courts decades long ago dismissed that same argument in Dixie by segregation academies.
Enrollment is offered to all “qualified” native-Hawaiians. If spaces there left over, members of other races may be considered. But only a handful of the 5,400 students on the school’s three campuses are not of native Hawaiian descent.
School officials say a history of unfair treatment of native Hawaiians justifies the policy. The Supreme Court has allowed racial preferences to compensate for past discrimination in limited cases.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals last August said the schools’ policy does not meet that criterion. The decision triggered a massive protest demonstration by native Hawaiians.
Then there is the drive to create a separate government for the about 20 percent of the state’s population who have native-Hawaiian blood. Some believe they deserve special treatment because their monarchy was overthrown more than a century ago in a conspiracy engineered by sugar barons and aided by the U.S. government.