A bad idea whose time has come

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Sen. Daniel Akaka's bill for Native Hawaiian sovereignty is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate in September. It would give Native Hawaiians the same status as American Indians. It would create a separate, race-based independent government for Native Hawaiians. Never mind that there are very few people of entirely Native Hawaiian descent or that they are not living in separate enclaves but are thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of Hawaiian life. Never mind that Indian reservations have grave problems.

This is a hugely regressive step, away from the Aloha welcoming spirit that has been one of the glories of Hawaii for many decades and toward racial separatism. It seems directly contrary to the spirit and intent of the 14th Amendment and the civil rights laws. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 struck down a Hawaii law providing that only people of Native Hawaiian descent could vote in elections for the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down the policy of the Kamehameha School (funded by the $6.2 billion Bishop Estate) to limit admissions to students of Native Hawaiian descent. The thought behind these policies and the Native Hawaiian sovereignty bill is that Native Hawaiians are so disadvantaged that they need special privileges and a special status.

But that claim is pretty thin gruel. In 1995, in an interview with the head of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, I observed that Native Hawaiians (however defined) are better off in every material way than any other people of Polynesian descent. But he insisted on their victim status. "Native Hawaiians"—I'm quoting from memory, perhaps inexactly—"have lower incomes and education levels than any other ethnic group in Hawaii, except of course the Filipinos." I love the "of course."

For more thorough explanations of why the Akaka bill is a bad idea, read John Fund and Tim Chapman. Nonetheless the bill seems likely to pass. Senator Akaka is a nice man, well liked by other senators; Hawaii's Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has strongly supported the bill; several Senate Republicans support it. The attitude of many members of the Senate and of the House is to defer to members from Hawaii on what seems, on its face, to be a purely local issue—even if polls in Hawaii have shown majorities or pluralities against the bill. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona has been trying to rally opposition. Good luck to him.