Affirmative Action and Beyond

I usually try to avoid writing about Kamehameha Schools, for reasons that should be obvious, but with the Supreme Court reconsidering the constitutionality of affirmative action programs, the Schools’ admission policy may again come under scrutiny. I wrote this piece a few years ago as part of a letter that was used to explain the justification for the Hawaiians-first admissions policy in the early years of the challenges to it. It may have enduring relevance in the current conservative/libertarian political environment.

The history of the Hawaiian people is one of loss, but also of perseverance. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries consisted for Hawaiians of a gradual erosion of their cultural, political and economic rights. The Mahele resulted in the alienation of land for the majority of Hawaiians. The American-aided overthrow of the monarchy subverted a from of government that was supported by the majority of Hawai’i’s citizens. Some institutions were preserved and some have been created in the wake of these losses. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs was a step toward Hawaiian self governance, and Kamehameha Schools has educated Hawaiian children since 1887. The policies of these institutions have recently been challenged, and the challenges have intensified in recent years.

In the national climate of opposition to affirmative action, Kamehameha Schools’ admissions policy has become the target of court action, most notably in the John Doe v. Kamehameha Schools and related cases. Anti-affirmative action proponents oppose racially “sensitive” admissions policies as racist processes, ignoring the clearly inequitable outcomes that result from the alleged “colorblind” processes they advocate. Boalt Hall Law School at UC Berkeley is a case in point. After the controversial Proposition 183, which ended affirmative action in the University of California, the incoming class at Boalt Hall included only one African-American. This, practically in Oakland with its 47% black population. The point of affirmative action is to make  institutions (schools in this case) look more like the community, not less.

But Kamehameha’s policy goes beyond affirmative action, and is based on the unique history of the Hawaiian people and Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s will. Pauahi’s will was written in the context of the decline of the Hawaiian people. Causian business and political leaders of the time considered the fate of the Hawaiian people as sealed. Lorrin Thurston, mastermind of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, stated: “the question is not if the Hawaiian race will become extinct, but when?” Pauahi’s will was thus aimed at raising the status of Hawaiians through education. Kamehameha Schools has been extremely effective in meeting this goal.

A failure to comprehend the history of the Hawaiian people was demonstrated in a Wall Street Journal article concerning the Rice v.Cayetano case (which disallowed Hawaiian-only voting for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs) asked why “immigrants of Polynesian ancestry” should have exclusive voting rights in a state-funded election. This view completely disregards Hawaiians’ status as indigenous peoples, and neglects their history of struggle. Failures such as this allow non-Hawaiians to dismantle the institutions of Hawaiian self-determination with a clear conscience and a sense of impunity.

Kamehameha’s high college placement rate (95-99%) involves imparting a certain amount of privilege to its graduates. The process by which privilege is gained, maintained and passed from one generation to the next is often invisible to those who benefit from it. Economic, social and cultural advantages are gained in small increments that accumulate into large advantages in competitiveness for privileged groups. Kamehameha invests its students with the cultural capital that members of privileged groups gain spontaneously in the normal course of their lives, and thus lifts its graduates into productive and even influential positions in society. The schools are often the only source of such capital available to Hawaiian families.

An important question that needs to be asked is: What would be the result if Kamehameha Schools, as we know it, ceased to exist? Rethinking the debate from this perspective illuminates what Kamehameha has done, rather than what it has not done. Many Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians feel that Kamehameha does not educate enough Hawaiians currently, and that it should educate more. Obviously, ending Hawaiian preference would result in Kamehameha being able to educate fewer Hawaiian children. Given that the majority of Kamehameha students cannot currently afford the $3000 cost of attendance, these Hawaiian children would most likely attend public schools. In my own informal polls in my class, about 85% say they would be at public schools had they not gotten in to Kamehameha. The public schools, in which Native Hawaiians are the largest ethnic group, are widely regarded as having failed Hawaiian children. This is the impetus for the initiation, and relative popularity of the Hawaiian charter school movement.

These Hawaiian children who attend public schools constitute the portion of the Hawaiian population that drives the dismal statistics – in education, crime, health and poverty. Hawaiians in 1997 made up one half of one percent of the doctoral degrees given at the University of Hawai’i. In contrast, Native Hawaiians make up forty percent of the prison population, double their proportion in the general population.  These statistics are abhorrent and can be recited ad infinitum. But these are the negative reasons for Kamehameha’s existence.

Kamehameha has produced citizens who have truly enriched the modern culture of Hawai’I, and because of this we all lead fuller lives. At one point, every professor at the University of Hawai’i’s Center for Hawaiian Studies was a Kamehameha graduate. Many Hawaiian musicians have emerged from Kamehameha’s reknown performing arts program. The recent APEC conference opened part of its proceedings at Kamehameha because of its reputation as a performing arts hub, and sense of cultural authenticity. These successes have not come through a colorblind policy, but one that is mindful, not only of race and ethnicity, but of history.



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3 responses to “Affirmative Action and Beyond

  1. Aloha Umi- I always enjoy your posts, although I probably haven’t told you so enough. Amongst your wonderful thoughts, I think it is particularly important that your frame the ongoing onslaughts against KS and Hawaiian institutions as also part of neoracist opposition to affirmative action. While certainly there is a national/ trust component that distinguishes KS from mainland goings-on; sometimes it seems there is not enough discussion of the links b/w U.S. racism as well as U.S. colonial/ occupation. So – a long winded way of saying that I liked your post!


  2. umi

    Aloha Bianca,
    I often feel that US colonialism and racism is pointed to endlessly, and I thus tend to avoid mentioning it, but youʻre absolutely right – theyʻre the issues underlying most of these debates. Itʻs just hard to point to something thatʻs thought and not said (except in a dog whistle sort of way), especially when trying to appeal to reason and peopleʻs better natures. Maybe Iʻm naive. No, letʻs be honest, I am.


  3. Your nexus b/w the two is implicit in your reference to affirmative action – but, yes, I think pointing to the “dog whistle” problem lets people (courts) get bogged down what level of judicial scrutiny to use. I just think that there is something thornier going on with challenges to KS than what can be addressed only by drawing a bright line between trust entitlements and racial remediations. And, naive? Your analysis makes more real sense than much of what comes out of the Supreme Court these days!


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