Americans on the Edge: The Hawaiians and Identity Politics

This piece was originally written 5 June 2006, when legislation was being considered to make ethnic Hawaiians a “protected group.”  The whole business of protected groups is very much still with us in American life and politics.

Back in the early 1980’s, our family business had an ongoing business relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Getting there in those days from the U.S. wasn’t straightforward; it was necessary to pass through Tokyo on the way to Beijing. This involved a layover at Narita, an airport the subject of the longest running violent opposition of its kind in modern times.

Those who travel by air know that sitting in airports waiting for flights is pretty much a given. So while waiting to get on the plane for Beijing, I sat in the airport lobby and looked around my fellow passengers. Of particular interest were a group of “oriental” looking teenagers who were drawing attention to themselves by the noise they were making. So I asked myself, “where are these people from? And why do they, looking like they do, act like this?” (I had come to expect better in my travels to East Asia.) The giveaway finally came when they started to throw their American passports at each other and their hapless chaperones scolded them, “You’re going to China, you’d better behave!” Closer examination showed that these young people were from the William McKinley High School in Honolulu; as their school’s band, they were going to China to perform.

Today we have the spectacle of at least some of these people being made into yet another “special” ethnic group, together with all of the “privileges” that go with that. This balkanisation of our population is getting one more division, and that in a place which is mostly non-white and which has a high rate of racial mixing. It’s one thing to impose this in areas where a form of “apartheid” had been constructed by the “white” majority. It’s quite another to do this in a place like Hawaii. So what gives?

Let’s start by stipulating that the tropical and sub-tropical fringes of the US stretch what it means to be “American.” (I know this: I grew up in one.) Beyond that, the whole idea of the US is not an ethnic expression but an idea, an idea based on the God-given rights of its people. One of the main jobs of the government is to insure that these rights are guaranteed to its people in an equitable fashion.

Unfortunately that dream has been lost in in the invasion of “modernist” identity politics. In the rapid rate of change that characterises our time, people want to hold on to whatever identity they have, and the most fundamental human identity they have is that of their ethnic origin. The flip side to this is the assertion by some that they are some kind of “master race.” This was of course a leitmotif of Adolf Hitler, who inflicted it with deadly seriousness during World War II. Other groups in the US have attempted to assert the same thing; they would be laughable if they weren’t backed up with bull-headed persistence and occasional violence.

This is why we have the system we do. Additionally making certain groups “special” is expedient politically because it creates a patron-client relationship between the group benefiting from it and those who make it possible.

So now we have the Hawaiians gunning for the same status. There are some powerful patronage issues here as well. In the short run these will benefit. But in the long run the result will be resentment by the rest of the population. The more groups that seek such status, the less “special” it will be. It will degenerate national life into a slugfest of competing interest and ethnic groups. The dream for unity and God-given rights will die, and the country’s own survival will be in doubt. The only thing that will mark us as Americans is our bad behaviour, as was the case with the McKinley students in the Tokyo airport lobby. We are further down that road than many of us realise.

A few years ago I was standing in another airport line talking with a high official in my church. He was making arrangements to go to South Africa to visit with our two churches there. Legal apartheid had been ended, and his job was to inform the two churches—one white, one “coloured”—that they either needed to come together or get out of our denomination. Years ago, liberals thought they would break Christianity by branding it as a racist affair, but the American church is beating that rap to create a true multi-racial unity. It may be the only multi-racial unity left standing if things keep going as they are.

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