Posted on June 17, 2021

Hawai’i Is Not the Multicultural Paradise Some Say It Is

Imani Altemus-Williams and Marie Eriel Hobro, National Geographic, May 17, 2021

To outsiders, Hawai‘i might seem like the epitome of a post-racial society. For decades, scholars, writers, and tourism boosters have portrayed the islands that way—as a “racial utopia” where Native Hawaiians and Asians live harmoniously alongside white people, with the largely non-white population serving as the antidote to racism.

After all, no racial group holds a majority on the islands, and nearly a quarter of the population reports having a multiracial background. Compare that to the United States as a whole, where only 3 percent of the population is multiracial and three-quarters is white.

But Hawai‘i’s racial make-up does not stem from a desire to unify races. Instead, it comes from concerted Western efforts to eradicate Native Hawaiian culture and create division among sugar plantation workers.{snip}

The racial conflict began when Captain James Cook and his men came ashore in the Hawaiian islands in 1778. An estimated 683,000 Native Hawaiians were living in a culturally rich, self-sustaining society and thriving in the ahupuaʻa system—a model for equitably distributing land, resources, and work. The Europeans brought diseases, Western ways of thinking, and labor-intensive sugar plantations, leading to a cascade of traumatic events—including a sharp decline in population, the 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and what many consider to be an ongoing occupation. {snip}

When Native Hawaiians protested inhumane conditions, owners sought out other ethnic groups for cheap labor on the plantations. Beginning in the 19th century, contract laborers from China, Japan, Okinawa, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Korea, Cape Verde, and the Philippines were lured to the islands with the promise of a paradisiacal lifestyle. {snip}


Still sociologists in the 1920s and 30s looked at Hawai‘i’s mix of races and ethnicities, and especially the intermarriage among them, and saw the ultimate racial laboratory, where they could conduct race-related studies. Romanzo Colfax Adams, a leading sociologist at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, promoted the notion that Hawai’i was a so-called melting pot. “After a time the terms now commonly used to designate the various groups according to the country of birth or ancestry will be forgotten,” he wrote  in 1925. “There will be no Portuguese, no Chinese, no Japanese — only American.”

Although modern scholars such as Jonathan Okamura ascribe early intermarriage rates to a sex imbalance among the populations rather than any special tolerance, politicians touted Hawai‘i as a society of “colonial progress” where Asians and Native Hawaiians could culturally assimilate and become “model minorities,” an argument that eventually led to Hawai‘i’s statehood (many Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiian locals alike often refer to the islands as a “fake state” given the lawless process involved). {snip}

The ethnic hierarchies created during the plantation era still exist today. There continues to be persistent mistreatment of Native Hawaiian, Filipino, Samoan, Micronesian, Black, and Tongan communities, especially within the education, economic, and justice systems. Native Hawaiians have among the highest poverty rates on the islands and make up some 20 percent of Hawaiʻi’s houseless population. Samoans, Tongans, and Filipinos struggle with low per capita incomes, while more than half of Hawai‘i’s Marshallese population are impoverished. Black residents do slightly better financially but account for nearly a third of the state’s reports of race-related employment discrimination. Meanwhile, Japanese residents earn the highest per capita income at $32,129, followed by white residents at $31,621. Both groups dominate the racial make-up of Hawai‘i’s current government.


Hawai‘i also has one of the highest rates of police killings per capita. In Oʻahu, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are subject to more than a third of the incidents of police use of force, even though they make up only 10 percent of the population. {snip}