Hawaii Admissions Day

The Maui News
Friday, August 19, 2005

By EDWIN TANJI, City Editor

On this Admission Day, there may be more Hawaiians wondering just what it means to them, with a U.S. court ruling that they are not entitled to any privileges as would-be citizens of a formerly sovereign nation.

A federal appeals panel's split decision on the Kamehameha Schools admissions policy is only the latest in a series of court actions that establish the Hawaiians as just another ethnic group to be assimilated into the American population. Whatever their national identity, they are just another race whose color under American law is irrelevant.

Race is a difficult issue in America, where for most of the centuries those of European ancestry held themselves as racially superior to anyone whose ethnic roots led back to Asia, Africa or the Americas.

Especially for African-Americans, to have any blood quantum that was not European was to be labeled nonwhite. In contrast, anyone with any amount of aboriginal Hawaiian blood can proudly declare themselves "Hawaiian."

With Hawaiians, the issue of their rights deals with more than ethnicity, although for now the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has declined to recognize the broader issue. Race is a factor in the discussions since the blooded Hawaiians clearly have a distinctive genetic element that distinguishes them from even other Polynesian groups.

But there is also the element of national origin, not unlike the differentiation among descendants of Europeans of their national origins, evidenced in distinctive cultural practices – German polkas and Oktoberfest, Italian opera and pasta or Irish reels and St. Patrick's festivities – that are preserved in the countries of origin as well as in transplanted communities in the United States.

Racial distinctions create a problem of definition. Biologist Armand Leroi ("The Nature of Normal Human Variety," March 15, 2005) says that race is a factor of genetics, but no one knows how it works.

"We don't know what the differences are between white skin and black skin, European skin versus African skin. What I mean is, we don't know what the genetic basis of that is," he says.

"Here's a trait, trivial as it may be, about which wars have been fought, which is one of the great fault lines in society, around which people construct their identities as nothing else. And yet, we haven't the foggiest idea what the genetic basis is."

Part of the reason is the evil committed by some, such as German Nazis, in distinguishing racial differences. Race genetics raises ethical and moral red flags.

Homo sapiens is a single species that has diverged into subspecies, but Leroi notes that science today emphasizes the similarities rather than the differences.

"From a political point of view, I have no doubt that's a fine thing," he says. But he says that means ignoring "one of the most beautiful problems that modern biology has left: Namely, what is the genetic basis of normal variety of differences between us?"

In science, racial differences are an issue of genetic variation. In politics, racial differences are a moral and ethical issue, and American law allows no variation in individual rights no matter what the skin color.

But the issue for Hawaiians is not just a matter of race. Aboriginal Hawaiians also were citizens of a sovereign nation that was overthrown and eventually absorbed by the United States, with their cultural roots as well as their traditional social structures suppressed.

The racially European citizens of Hawaii who precipitated the revolution that dispossessed the monarchy also engaged in a mild form of cultural genocide, disdaining, if not banning, the language, religion and cultural practices of the Hawaiians.

Hawaiians have revived their language and appreciation of the culture and traditions that had been. In the process, they are reviving a sense of nationhood, not just nationality.

For most Americans, national identity refers to where they or their ancestors originated. There are Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans.

Hawaiians in Hawaii don't have that option. This is their homeland in a very different sense than for the mass of Americans who are in effect hanai to the islands.

There are no Hawaiian-Americans.

There are those for whom the definition of Hawaiian is race based. But a definition of the Hawaiian must address historical and political events and precedents. Opponents of Hawaiian rights have focused on genetic variation, not on any legitimacy of claims based on historical displacement.

The courts ought to do better.

Edwin Tanji can be reached at editor@mauinews.com. "Haku Mo'olelo," referring to a story writer, appears every Friday.

Copyright © 2005 The Maui News.

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