Hawaii Is Diverse, But Far From A Racial Paradise The state is known for its "Aloha Spirit" — a diverse mix of friendly people living on an island paradise. The rainbow of cultures its residents brag about is no exaggeration, but some say that beneath the veneer of geniality are deep-seated ethnic and racial tensions between the island's white community and native Hawaiians.

Hawaii Is Diverse, But Far From A Racial Paradise

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The state of Hawaii is known for its aloha spirit. The rainbow of cultures its residents brag about is no exaggeration. Hawaii has the highest racial minority population of any state in the union - 75 percent, according to U.S. Census figures.

But some say beneath the veneer of geniality lay deep-seeded ethnic and racial tensions between the island's white community and native Hawaiians. Our three-part series on race, Beyond Black and White, continues this week with John Osorio, professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He joins us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu. Thanks so much for being with us.

Professor JOHN OSORIO (Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa): Thank you very much for having me.

HANSEN: You say much of the ethnic and the racial tension in Hawaii today actually has its roots in the island's history. Can you briefly explain that history?

Prof. OSORIO: The history of Hawaii as a kingdom has been a history of accommodation of foreigners as they have come to Hawaii. And the Hawaiian people and their government accommodated these arrivals. In exchange, at least this is the way I see it and an increasing number of Hawaiians see it, the United States took Hawaii as a possession in 1900 and has held onto us ever since.

HANSEN: So, native Hawaiians, it seems to be you're saying, have kind of been pushed to the margins?

Prof. OSORIO: That's certainly true, and it's not a nice place to be. Because the margins that we have been pushed to include, you know, high incarceration for crime, low levels of ownership of land, low levels of education.

HANSEN: So, it seems you're saying that Hawaii's past is continuing to affect racial and ethnic relations today.

Prof. OSORIO: Yes, I'd say that's true. And I think that they continue to get more strained the more people move here who have really no knowledge or very ignorant about this history.

HANSEN: In a moment, we're going to speak with a white Hawaiian who calls state-sponsored preferences for native Hawaiians reverse discrimination. How do you respond to those who say that whites or Caucasians are subject to racism in Hawaii?

Prof. OSORIO: In the sense that people don't like one another and call each other names, I think that there's a good deal of that, sort of across the board here. There are, I would consider them, minor racial prejudices that have to do with, you know, the way we think Chinese typically behave or Japanese typically behave or haoles typically behave. In terms of really any particular ethnic group being discriminated against because of their ethnicity, I simply deny it.

HANSEN: You mention the word - is it haoles?

Prof. OSORIO: Haoles, yeah.

HANSEN: Haoles, tell me what those are.

Prof. OSORIO: Hoale means foreigner. And up until the 19th century, it meant really anyone who wasn't a native person. But as the population became more and more diverse, haole gradually came to mean specifically Caucasian foreigners.

HANSEN: Do you believe that native Hawaiians deserve special access to resources? I mean, land, health care and separate schools?

Prof. OSORIO: No, I believe that Hawaiians deserve the right to self-determination. They had the right to create their own nation in the 19th century, and I believe that they have the right today to have that restored.

HANSEN: Professor John Osorio teaches at the University of Hawaii and Manoa. He joined us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu. Thank you very much.

Prof. OSORIO: Thank you.

HANSEN: We are joined now by someone with a different perspective on racial and ethnic relations in Hawaii. Kenneth Conklin is a retired professor of philosophy, who moved to Hawaii from the mainland 17 years ago. Conklin, who is white, maintains an extensive Web site opposing the idea of Hawaiian sovereignty. He also joins us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio. Welcome to the program.

Professor KENNETH CONKLIN (Retired, Philosophy): Thank you very much for having me.

HANSEN: We just spoke with Professor John Osorio who advocates for Hawaiian sovereignty. Why are you against it?

Prof. CONKLIN: It's not so much that Im against Hawaiian sovereignty, but rather that I am in favor of unity and equality. And I believe that everyone should be treated equally by the government, which means that I oppose racial entitlement programs, of which we have many, many here in Hawaii.

HANSEN: Is it my understanding you grew up in Illinois and you lived on the mainland before moving to Hawaii? Was it 1992?

Prof. CONKLIN: Yes. I had visited previously on summer vacations. So, I decided this was where I wanted to retire. And one of the big attractions that motivated me to come was the rainbow of cultures and races that we have in Hawaii.

HANSEN: So, what was it exactly that motivated you to take up this cause?

Prof. CONKLIN: Well, at first, I was inclined to go along with the sovereignty activists. And as I began studying Hawaiian history, I gradually discovered that there is no historical or legal or moral basis for supporting race-based political sovereignty for ethnic Hawaiians. And so then I began getting concerned about it, and so I slowly began stepping out into public. And the more I came to understand it, the more I came to be abhorred by it.

HANSEN: Those who espoused the cause for native Hawaiians, I mean, they say that the native Hawaiians are on the margin now. That economically, they fare worst than others, which is why they are advocating this idea of native Hawaiian sovereignty, and maybe it's not just a matter of race.

Prof. CONKLIN: Well, it is a matter of race. But, for example, we might look at black people on the mainland United States and say, well, they are having great difficulties. They still are suffering from higher unemployment and lower income and worse health. How about creating a government for them and giving them the authority to negotiate with federal and state governments? Think what a nightmare that would be, particularly for African-Americans.

HANSEN: How do you respond to those who say that what you believe is racist?

Prof. CONKLIN: Well, just within the past few days the world has celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. I'm saying here in Hawaii, let's tear down this wall of apartheid. And for goodness sake, let's not set up a new one.

HANSEN: Kenneth Conklin is a retired professor of philosophy and an activist against Hawaiian sovereignty. He lives in Kaneohe in Hawaii, and he joined us from the studios of Hawaii Public Radio. Thank you.

Prof. CONKLIN: Thank you very much.

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HANSEN: We've been reading your letters and comments about our series, Beyond Black and White, and we heard from many of you regarding our segment last week about the growing number of Americans who identify as being more than one race.

Chris Handy of Gainesville, Florida writes: While listening, I noticed something peculiar. What I noticed was that certain individuals were including terms such as French or Mexican in their self-descriptions of racial identity. Those are nationalities, not races. They are indicating a cultural background that nowadays may have only a negligible relationship with race due to the mass migrations of people in the last 500 years.

David Cronister(ph), who is mixed race, says he prefers the term trans-racial. He writes: If I say I'm multiracial, people automatically start finding all the races I could possibly be. If I say I'm trans-racial, people become more interested in the word and what it means to me. So, instead of talking about what makes me different, we start talking about ideas and concepts that we share.

And Patty Day wrote on our Web site: I like the fact that the discussion has been raised. Categorizing my ethnicity was always a problem. I'm 55 years old and it is only fairly recently that other was even a category. When I discussed my heritage, it is always a fascinating discourse.

As our series, Beyond Black and White, continues, you can share your prospective at our Web site, npr.org. Next week, we'll focus on the future of racial preferences and identity politics.

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