Jeremiah Wright has some company in the Aloha State. The former pastor and mentor to Barack Obama recently proclaimed that America is really two peoples, one black, one white. In Hawaii, U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka (D) has been pushing a proposal that would needlessly cleave his state’s residents into two legally distinct populations: Native Hawaiian and non-Native. Senator Akaka’s pro-segregation bill, which would also fan secessionist flames in America’s youngest state, is as foolish and regressive as the racially charged rhetoric of Rev. Wright. Yet while many denounce Wright’s race-tinged religious extremism, the House version of the Akaka measure sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives last fall by a landslide, and the Senate is likely to vote on the legislation before Memorial Day.
The proposed Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act would confer upon Native Hawaiians a tribal status like that afforded to American Indian tribes. But that idea doesn’t square with Hawaiian cultural reality. The Aloha State has been a cultural melting pot for generations — the 2000 U.S. census found the most multiracial state in the country — and has no indigenous tribal tradition. Unlike recognized Native American tribes in the other 49 states, the Akaka bill does not require Native Hawaiians to meet any of the seven criteria that federal law mandates for tribal recognition, such as being a geographically, culturally separate, and distinct community with an established and long-standing government. Instead, the bill defines Native Hawaiians as descendents of the “indigenous, native people” who occupied the islands and exercised sovereignty there prior to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. The bill doesn’t address the status of the thousands of descendants of other ethnicities that settled in Hawaii when it was a kingdom and were full citizens of that realm.
To sort out who is and is not a Native Hawaiian, the bill creates a nine-member board with “expertise in the determination of Native Hawaiian ancestry and lineal descendancy.” Those with at least one drop of Native blood, as determined by the board, will then be considered members of the tribe and be eligible to create their own government — a “Native Hawaiian Governing Entity.” They would also become beneficiaries of any entitlements or programs designated for Native Hawaiians. Based on census data, the Akaka bill would apply to about 400,000 people; 240,000 on the islands (20 percent of Hawaii’s current residents), and 140,000 Native Hawaiians living on the mainland.
Supporters of the bill argue that it will 1) benefit poor and struggling Native Hawaiians and 2) soothe racial bitterness by rectifying past injustices. Senator Akaka introduced his bill on the Senate floor saying it “seeks to build upon the foundation of reconciliation. It provides a structured process to bring together the people of Hawaii, along a path of healing.” But it’s not at all clear that Native Hawaiians need government-sponsored healing. Unlike Native Indians, the U.S. government did not persecute Native Hawaiians. There was no Trail of Tears or Bataan Death March in the 50th state. Hawaiians were justifiably excited about becoming Americans, voting 2-1 to join the Union in 1949.
The alleged wrongs to which Akaka refers are grounded in the 1993 “Apology Resolution,” signed into law by President Clinton, The resolution claimed falsely that the U.S. helped to overthrow Hawaii’s final queen in 1893. It also claimed, in the face of mountains of historical evidence to the contrary, that the Kingdom of Hawaii had a racially exclusive government that was responsible to Native Hawaiians alone.
Nor is it obvious that Native Hawaiians are in such dire shape that they need action of this magnitude. Many, particularly on the mainland, are doing just fine as is. The 2005 American Community Survey for California found that Native Hawaiians living in California enjoy a higher average income than Californians as a whole.
Columnist George Will predicts the bill will mobilize what he calls the “ethnic grievance industry.” Indeed, there’s evidence that, not yet passed, the bill is already stirring up ethnic resentment: Ethnic separatists staged a recent take-over of a historic Honolulu landmark that made headlines in the 48 contiguous states recently.
Akaka’s gripes rest on a legal fiction foisted on America by a coalition of bleeding heart liberals, multi-culturalist do-gooders, and by the grievance industry. Multi-culturalist groups who favor ethnic balkanization are pressing Akaka’s bill, according to a website established by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to promote the bill. The legislation is endorsed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF); the National Council of La Raza; the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC); and NAACP.
The bill has found numerous powerful supporters. It’s private backers include the politically connected Kamehameha Schools system, the wealthiest secondary institution in the U.S. and arguably the most powerful private entity in Hawaii, which wants to safeguard its endangered discriminatory privileges by supporting the measure. The School has already shelled out a $7 million settlement in a lawsuit over their policy of giving preference to Native Hawaiians, so it’s no surprise they’d also support the Akaka bill, which would grant legitimacy to the School’s racially charged admissions system.
In Congress, the bill’s advocates have succeeded in garnering bipartisan support. Its advocates have horse-traded their way into the favor of several Republican lawmakers, some of whom have large Native American constituencies at home. Four Republican senators have even gone as far as cosponsoring the measure: Norm Coleman (Minnesota), Gordon Smith (Oregon), and both Alaska senators, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski. Among the House bill’s seven cosponsors are two Republicans: Tom Cole (Oklahoma), and Don Young (Alaska). The bill is also supported by both Democratic presidential candidates.
As for this claim that the bill will bring people together? Nonsense. The bill is as poisonous as Jeremiah Wright’s belief that the education gap between blacks and whites can be bridged by racial double standards in student discipline, curriculum or expectations. And it’s as ludicrous as Rev. Wright’s assertion that all black people worship one way while all white people worship another. America is far from perfect, but it’s inarguably made substantial progress towards racial harmony. Legislation which seeks to redress grievances by pitting one person’s ancestors against another’s is, if anything, a step backwards.
Trying to mesh this kind of sovereignty with American citizenship reveals some ugly inconsistencies. How can one be an American citizen but not have to follow the U.S. Constitution? The same schism led Congress in 1968 to pass the Indian Civil Rights Act, which requires tribal constitutions to include similar constitutional protections found in the bill of Rights. The Act sought to extend very widely accepted constitutional norms like free speech, due process, and equal protection, to tribal territory.
But over time, tribal sovereignty has trumped the constitutionally guaranteed individual rights that the Act was created to preserve. In Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez (1978), the Supreme Court affirmed a Navajo tribal decision denying membership to children whose mother, but not father, was a tribe member. Under a tribal law, members must have both a father and a mother who are tribe members. And in 2006, a Cherokee court ruled in Lucy Allen v. Cherokee Nation Tribal Council that tribe membership must be open to descendants of slaves held by the Cherokee prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. These so-called “Freedmen” had been registered as tribe members during the assimilationist period of the early 20th century and were often living side by side on tribal land. Following the controversial 2006 decision, the entire Cherokee tribe membership voted the Freedmen out of the tribe, leaving them second-class citizens on their own land.
In February, the Akaka bill was approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It can be brought forward for a vote by the full Senate whenever Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says so. But doing is hardly a step toward racial harmony. Substantial opposition to the bill exists: One poll indicates Hawaiians oppose the bill by 2-1. And in 1998, the state of Hawaii’s own brief from the U.S. Supreme Court case of Rice v. Cayetano expressed the government’s belief that, “The Tribal concept simply has no place in the context of Hawaiian history.”
That the bill has come this far only shows how timid many Americans are when the ethnic-grievance crowd peddles its racialist theories. It’s clearly a dangerous precedent: Could ethnic activists in the American Southwest argue that they too deserve tribal status? What about ethnic Cajun or Creole peoples in Louisiana, who trace their roots in the Mississippi Delta to the exodus from French Nova Scotia before the Louisiana Purchase? Legislators have a constitutional duty to protect the individual equality of all Americans on the basis of their citizenship alone. Passing different laws for different races has never promoted harmony and reconciliation, and, if the racially charged debate over Akaka is any indication, never will.
– James Dellinger and Phil Brand are analysts at the Capital Research Center (CRC), a Washington, D.C., think tank. The opinions stated in this commentary belong to Dellinger and Brand, who are co-authors of “Racial Separatism in the Aloha State: The Bishop Estate Trust and Hawaii’s Kamehameha Schools,” which appears in the May 2008 issue of Foundation Watch , a CRC publication.