Court Rules Against Hawaii School Policy

A federal appeals court decision strikes down the Kamehameha Schools' policy of admitting only native Hawaiians. Melissa Block talks with Chad Blair, reporter for Hawaii Public Radio.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Trustees of the Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii say they'll appeal yesterday's federal appeals court ruling, which held that the schools were practicing unlawful race discrimination. The schools admit only Native Hawaiians. And the appeals court found that policy, in its words, `categorically trammels' the rights of non-Hawaiians. The case was brought by an unidentified non-Hawaiian boy who was denied admission.

The Kamehameha Schools were founded in 1884 from the estate of the late Princess Beatrice Pauahi Bishop. According to the trustees, the schools exist to correct the harms of the past. Chad Blair is covering this story for Hawaii Public Radio. He joins us from Honolulu.

Thanks for being with us.

CHAD BLAIR reporting:

Quite welcome.

BLOCK: Chad, let's figure this out. The schools have said they only give preference to Native Hawaiians, but this appeals court said, `No, your policy is an absolute bar to others, and that's unconstitutional.' What's the truth?

BLAIR: That's--well, that's a good question right now. The truth will be determined later. The schools' case simply argued this: that what they do is affirmative action; that their goal is to service a disadvantaged population, namely Native Hawaiians. They are overrepresented at the lower socioeconomic levels in the state of Hawaii. But the court didn't buy that. The words `absolute bar' are something that previous courts have cited when dealing with affirmative action decisions. They felt that that just was not the case; that this was, in fact, racial discrimination.

BLOCK: And we should explain that the students at this school have all sorts of blood in their mix. How do they actually prove that they are at least partly Native Hawaiian?

BLAIR: There is a vigorous screening process from school officials when a student does apply. That could be determined through various genealogy tracings. As long as you have at least 1/32nd or even less Hawaiian blood, you can be admitted, presuming that you do meet other criteria as well.

BLOCK: It's interesting to see how race is being used by both sides in this case. You had the Center for Hawaiian Studies representing Native Hawaiians, saying that this ruling represents one more theft, one more time that white racism wins. But, also, a lawyer for the student in this case, the non-Hawaiian, said that this case raises the visibility of a growing pernicious racism in Hawaii, I guess, against whites.

BLAIR: Well, I would probably say that Hawaii has one of the most tolerant societies on the face of the Earth. That doesn't mean that we don't have problems. And I think that this ruling by the 9th Circuit yesterday shines a pretty bright spotlight on the islands. Hopefully, it will help us address those concerns and that we can continue to live in harmony.

BLOCK: It seems that there was some issue that the judges in this case were taking up, which has to do with the status of Hawaii and its native peoples: Do they have any sort of exemption from civil rights law?

BLAIR: Well, it's a complicated case. There is a federal bill pending in Congress, the Akaka bill. If that bill passes, some say that it would give the political identity to Native Hawaiians--recognition by the federal government--that would, in fact, prevent these kind of lawsuits from happening. In other words, they would be able to preserve the status quo.

BLOCK: And meantime, Chad, the school year starts very soon, just a couple of weeks, August 18th. What happens with this boy, with this lawsuit and these schools?

BLAIR: The attorneys for the student say they hope that he will begin school on August 18th. He is a senior. School officials say they will resist a court order, if that should come, while they are asking the 9th Circuit to review the decision.

BLOCK: And again, Chad, these schools--they're private schools, don't receive federal money?

BLAIR: That's correct. They don't receive federal money. But it should be pointed out that they--as a non-profit charitable trust, they do have tax-exempt status. The Bishop estate, now called Kamehameha Schools, has $6 billion in assets. It is the largest landowner in the state of Hawaii.

BLOCK: OK. Chad, thanks so much.

BLAIR: Quite welcome.

BLOCK: Chad Blair of Hawaii Public Radio speaking with us from Honolulu.

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