The State of Hawaiʻi – Part 2

Iʻm writing this piece for my students, and it contains sections from other articles – mainly The Permanent Revolution. In this sequel to The State of Hawaiʻi – Part 1, I look at the underlying issues of people’s thought and ideas about each other, rather than the political issues of rail, etc. This is a work in progress.

Richard Hamasaki’s poem, “Cowardly Christopher Deedy” reminds us of Hawaiʻi’s “integration” into the global political economy:

On a clear morning on November 5th
Christopher Deedy flew into town,

a federal agent assigned to protect
APEC dignitaries in Honolulu

for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation,
a serious façade and a farce for most.

APEC was staged to promote deception
and Special Agent Deedy felt right at home.

Hawaiʻi was seen as an ideal and benign site to host the dignitaries of APEC – it proved to be more explosive, both in terms of the protests and violence inflicted, the shooting of Kollin Elderts being the most prominent example.  In some ways, this idea of passivity is well-founded.

The mindset of many people in Hawaiʻi is one of dependency and helplessness. We donʻt see ourselves as a place of any serious industry, but dependent on a constant flow of dollars from seven million tourists annually. Noel Kent wrote the book Hawaiʻi: Islands Under the Influence, which used third-world dependency theory in looking at Hawaiʻi’s economic history. The result is not pretty. Mufi Hanneman put it strongly when he said that local people have a subtle sense of inferiority. We feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of visitors (read: interlopers) and unable to exercise self-determination at even the most basic level – over our economy, lands and waters. But there is also an underlying sense of rage. As Lois-Ann Yamanaka pointed out when she was on The Connection on National Public Radio in the 90s, “everyone hates everyone” – she was referring to race in particular.

So far from a utopian state of bliss, much of Hawaiʻi, in my estimation, is in a kind of low-grade depression. Not necessarily economically, but perhaps even there. Certainly in terms of control. Newcomers arrive to manage or largest institutions, and are immediately integrated into the elite power structure, while generations of local people never approach it. They scarcely know it exists. Since the 1954 Democratic Revolution, Hawaiʻi was supposed to be firmly in the hands of local people, and it is to some extent, but in actuality it is a network of wealthy newcomers, “kamaʻaina” families and local politicos.

In 1954, the Democratic Party organized a revolution that mobilized demographic shifts and anti-plantation (and anti-elite) sentiments that had been building for decades. The formerly non-existent party used union organizing to mobilize voters from ethnic groups whose aspirations had long been repressed. The result, by the time of statehood, was one of the most liberal agendas of any state, including low tuition levels at the University of Hawaiʻi, a well-intended unitary school board, and stated rights for women.

Fast forward to 2012, and the revolution has morphed into an unstoppable machine for preserving the status quo. On election night, Duke Aiona’s defense of the now-decrepit Republican Party’s few victories made the Republicans sound like the party of the grassroots underdog rather than the party of elite business interests that it is. And these elites, whether Republican or Democrat, make up the ruling class – the top group of what I see as seven Hawaiʻi’s.


It occurred to me that there are about seven Hawaiʻi’s – that is, seven classes of people who, while intermingled, basically have a different experience of Hawaiʻi – as if there were seven different universes on this island (I confine myself somewhat to Oʻahu, which I know best). I wonʻt go into the details, because they are charged with racial and class stereotypes, but the point is that these “Hawaiʻi’s” have little to do with each other. They interact only in superficial ways. Iʻm constantly amazed that people live on Oʻahu and have rarely, if ever, been to certain places, and basically donʻt know their way around this small island. And despite this ignorance, some have a blatant disdain for others, based purely on geography. These “Hawaiʻis” are, but are not only, class-based divisions. Geography determines access to people, schools and resources, but race plays a dominant role.

Jonathan Okamura, in his book Ethnicity and Inequality in Hawaiʻi, posits at least two Hawaiʻi’s – an overclass consisting of Haole, Chinese and Japanese, and an underclass of Filipinos, Hawaiians and Samoans. Everyone knows this, but Okamura’s contribution is that he supports his claim with data, which shows that:

ethnicity not race or class, signifies difference for Hawai’i’s people and therefore structures their social relations. In Hawai’i, residents attribute greater social significance to the presumed cultural differences between ethnicities than to more obvious physical differences, such as skin colour. According to Okamura, ethnicity regulates disparities in access to resources, rewards, and privileges among ethnic groups, as he demonstrates in his analysis of socioeconomic and educational inequalities in the state. He shows that socially and economically dominant ethnic groups – Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and whites – have stigmatized and subjugated the islands’ other ethnic groups – especially Native Hawaiians, Filipino Americans, and Samoans. He demonstrates how ethnic stereotypes have been deployed against ethnic minorities and how these groups have contested their subordinate political and economic status by articulating new identities for themselves.

In his chapter on race in the book The Value of Hawaiʻi, John P. Rosa (authority on the 1931 Massie-Kahahawai cases) clarifies the distinction between ethnicity and race: the first is a perceived category, while the second is more akin to a biological (or anthropological) category, like what might be used on the census – “haole” vs. “caucasian,” for example. These perceived categories of ethnicity are deployed to create a kind of segregation. And because of this segregation – let’s call it what it is, whether racial, class-based, or merely geographic –  people are not really able to see outside of their own frames of reference.


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