Racial Tensions Are Simmering In Hawaii’s Melting Pot

Martin Kasindorf, USA TODAY, March 6, 2007

A violent road-rage altercation between Native Hawaiians and a white couple near Pearl Harbor two weeks ago is provoking questions about whether Hawaii’s harmonious “aloha” spirit is real or just a greeting for tourists.

The Feb. 19 attack, in which a Hawaiian father and son were arrested and charged with beating a soldier and his wife unconscious, was unusual here for its brutality. It sparked a public debate over race relations that is filling blogs and newspaper websites with impassioned comments along stark ethnic lines.

These divisive exchanges come as the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress are being asked to tackle another inflammatory racial issue in a state where no race is a majority: special benefits for Native Hawaiians, ranging from preference at an elite private school to free houses on government land. One side says the long-established perks compensate Hawaiians for past wrongs and preserve their valuable culture for the islands. The other side says the benefits discriminate against other racial groups.

The current controversies are exposing racial tensions below the surface of a tropical paradise that Gov. Linda Lingle says is “a model for the world” in diversity and peaceful integration. Simmering divisions pit Hawaiians against other groups, and “locals” of all races against newcomers including immigrants and military members.

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Racial troubles in the islands usually don’t get much public discussion. In a tourism-dependent state, talk about tensions is “like news about shark attacks,” says Jon Van Dyke, a University of Hawaii law professor. “People are afraid they might lose customers.”

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Hawaii recorded six hate crimes last year, up from one or two in each previous year since recordkeeping began in 2003, according to the state.

“There is a notion that we have this kind of rainbow society and we all get along really swell,” says Jon Matsuoka, dean of the university’s School of Social Work. “The reality is that there are racial tensions. They are deep-seated and historical, and that history didn’t abruptly stop.”

The aloha culture

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By many measures, Hawaii is a paragon of racial accord. One in two marriages are across ethnic lines, says Lingle, a Missouri-born haole [pronounced “how-lee,” a whtie person] Most neighborhoods are integrated. In a 2005 Census survey, 21% of residents listed themselves as being of more than one race—the highest percentage of any state.

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One irritant in this tolerant atmosphere is a string of federal civil rights lawsuits filed since 1996, alleging that special rights for Native Hawaiians illegally discriminate against non-Hawaiians.

Lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court last week to order the private Kamehameha Schools to admit a white student. The school trustees accept few non-Hawaiians, saying they are honoring the will of the Hawaiian princess who established the school in 1883 with an endowment now worth $7.7 billion.

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An estimated 246,000 Native Hawaiians live in the islands, 20% of the state’s population, according to a Census survey last year. Another 140,000 live in mainland states. All but about 10,000 are of mixed races, state surveys indicate.

Hawaiians are consistently on the bottom rungs statewide in income and school test scores. At Waianae on Oahu’s Leeward shore, dozens of homeless Hawaiian families camp in tents on the beach.

‘Will there be any Hawaii left?’

Census studies show Native Hawaiian numbers are slowly shrinking. The islands’ low-paying service jobs in tourism and the high cost of living—27% above the national average—have driven so many to migrate to casino jobs in Las Vegas that Hawaiians now call the Nevada city “the ninth island,” says Ronald Becker, chairman of the criminal justice program at Honolulu’s Chaminade University.

“If all the Native Hawaiians leave, will there be any Hawaii left?” says Dave Young of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. “That’s what people come here for—the Hawaiian culture.”

The court battles over Native Hawaiians’ status are stirring emotion. When the phone rings at the home of lawyer John Goemans on the Big Island, he picks up the call in Beverly Hills. He quietly moved a year ago, saying he fears for his safety in Hawaii. He won a federal appeals court ruling in 2005 that struck down the Kamehameha Schools’ Hawaiian-preference policy.

In protest, 15,000 marchers rallied at Iolani Palace, seat of the Hawaiian kingdom that white sugar planters overthrew in 1893 with help from U.S. Marines. Signs at the rally said “Hawaiians only” and “stop stealing from Hawaiians.” Lingle, the Republican governor, spoke in support of the rights of Native Hawaiians.

“Well, 15,000 people marching—and I’m the guy they’re looking for—is alarming,” Goemans says, explaining his flight. “Hawaiians are wonderful people, but there are some extreme firebrands.” The appeals court reheard the case and reversed its ruling in December. Now, Goemans is asking the Supreme Court to review the case.

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To compensate for the U.S. role in the royal overthrow, Congress in 1920 authorized free houses for 99 years to people who can prove they have at least 50% Hawaiian blood. The state manages the program on 200,000 acres of government land; 8,000 families occupy houses, with 20,000 on a waiting list. The state created OHA in 1978 to run other exclusive benefit programs.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who is of Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry, spearheaded through Congress a 1993 resolution declaring the overthrow illegal and apologizing to Hawaiians for the U.S. role in the coup. President Clinton signed the apology.

Hawaiians are having mixed success defending their privileges. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that Hawaii had set up an illegal “racial classification” when it limited elections for OHA trustees to Native Hawaiian voters. A lawsuit brought by a taxpayer group attacking OHA and the home-lease program soon will be dismissed on procedural grounds, but similar suits are sure to be filed, state Attorney General Mark Bennett says.

If Hawaiians lose their favored status in the courts, they could regain it in Congress. Akaka filed a Senate bill that would allow Hawaiians to form a separate government like those of American Indian tribes.

Federal recognition of such an entity would put Hawaiians in a position to keep their perks and demand more.

Last June, a Republican filibuster stopped the controversial Akaka bill from reaching the Senate floor for a vote. Akaka reintroduced it in January. “With a Democratic majority, the prospects are better in this Congress,” says Akaka, 82.

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The most radical want to secede from the United States. Ikaika Hussey, 28, of Hui Pu (“to unite”), a group opposing the Akaka bill, says it fails to offer “the option of independence.”

Some Hawaiians say independence is desirable but impracticable. “Secede? Oh, God, we would love to,” says Haunani-Kay Trask, 57, a Hawaiian studies professor at the University of Hawaii. “As a nationalist, I hate the United States of America. But (independence) doesn’t live in the political-military world we live in, with 26 military bases in Hawaii and 7 million tourists a year.”

‘Not much acceptance’

Booming tourism is bringing some new social stresses. Hawaii’s unemployment rate was 2% in December, the USA’s lowest. The hot economy is attracting poorly educated immigrants who can have problems fitting in. Groups of young Micronesians from Western Pacific islands such as Chuk sometimes fight with other groups in low-income Honolulu neighborhoods, police reports say.

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Some in Hawaii’s 24.9% minority of whites say they sense discrimination.

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For all the problems, Hawaii is a safe place. Rates of murder and other violent crimes are low, prosecutor Carlisle says.

“The race thing isn’t perfect here,” he adds. “But there is a lot that people can learn about race relationships from Hawaii.”

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