Posted on May 19, 2008

In Multiracial Hawaii, Obama Faced Discrimination

Sudhin Thanawala, AP, May 19, 2008


As part of the islands’ small group of black Americans in the 1970s, [Barack Obama] encountered racism and struggled to form a black identity.

Obama’s experience in Hawaii is echoed by other blacks, including some of his schoolmates, and challenges the state’s vaunted image of racial harmony.

“A big joke amongst the brothers was you could be anything else but a brother and have free rein of the world in Hawaii,” said Rik Smith, a black former schoolmate of Obama’s at Punahou, an elite private school in Honolulu. “When it comes to people of color, black people, there’s a huge amount of racism.”

In his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama, who is half black and half white, recalled a seventh grader calling him a “coon” and a tennis pro who joked that his color might rub off. One person wanted to touch his hair, and he was asked whether his father, a native of Kenya, ate people. An assistant basketball coach used a racial epithet in referring to black players.


Smith, a geriatrician in California, said his experience at Punahou and in the islands was similar to Obama’s. Smith recalled classmates at Punahou agreeing that he should put his individual identity ahead of his race and remembered girls he wanted to date telling him they’d meet him somewhere else when he came to pick them up.


Lewis Anthony Jr., another black student at the school in the 1970s, said there were clear boundaries between black students and students of other races when it came to dating.

He remembered when the parents of a white girl objected to her going to the prom with him, fearing someone would have a problem seeing a black man and a white woman together and shoot at them.


Hawaii’s almost iconic status as the nation’s most diverse state stems from its mix of mostly Asian cultures. Asians—mainly Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos—number around 700,000 and constitute more than 50 percent of the state’s population, the highest percentage by far of any state. They are followed by whites and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders as the largest racial groups in Hawaii, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates.

Nearly 20 percent of Hawaii’s population is multiracial compared with about 2 percent for the United States as a whole.

The islands’ 49,000 blacks make up less than 4 percent of the population, with a sizable portion of that number consisting of transient military families. That compares with a national average of 13 percent and ranks Hawaii 38th among all states in the percentage of its population that is black.

When Obama went to school in Hawaii between 1971 and 1979, there were even fewer blacks.