Tribalizing Hawaii

by The Editors

The latest maneuver from the administration of President Obama, ever a composite political character, is an unfortunate combination of Chicago machine politics and Hawaiian ethnic grievances. The executive branch has announced that it’s considering recognizing Native Hawaiians, an ethnic group that makes up one fifth of the Aloha Isles’ population, as an autonomous political entity. This would give the group, currently represented by the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the right to construct a race-based government like an Indian tribe and, likely, all the privileges of that it may find profitable.

This execrable idea isn’t new: It was proposed repeatedly in Congress during the Bush years by an odd combination of racialist Democrats, Hawaiian political opportunists, and the islanders’ longtime Alaskan allies.

Congress’s bill by itself may well have been unconstitutional. The Obama administration’s proposal certainly is: The proposal to create a Native Hawaiian government resembles the recognition of Indian tribes by the federal government, but that specific process is rooted in the Constitution and was authorized and regulated by Congress.

Native Hawaiians are almost nothing like an Indian tribe. They make up a minority of the islands’ population and live distributed among non-native Hawaiians, whereas Indian tribes live in isolated and homogeneous communities. They aren’t, like American Indian tribes, a polity that preexists the Constitution; the kingdom of Hawaii was a multiethnic society, a society that eventually voted, overwhelmingly, to become a state. Creating a Native Hawaiian government would perversely mean that one Hawaiian would live under a different legal code from that of his neighbor merely because of their disparate ancestries — a race-based political system and the antithesis of American law and the intent of the Constitution.

That incongruity is why the Supreme Court held 7–2 in 2000 that the existing Native Hawaiian government-within-a-government, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, couldn’t hold elections restricted to Native Hawaiians, a blatant contradiction of the Fifteenth Amendment. That office controls the state land and resources that a hypothetical Native Hawaiian government would probably commandeer — hundreds of millions of dollars in wealth, intended for the benefit of natives, that the department has done a fine job of mismanaging for years. The new tribal government would likely have both sovereign immunity over those lands and all the privileges that come with it. The disruption this could cause Hawaii can’t be overstated: A large chunk of the islands would be able to set its own building codes, legalize gambling, and more, with most residents being barred from having a say in the matter because of the color of their skin.

The exact consequences of the proposed recognition of Native Hawaiians — as was the case with former senator Daniel Akaka’s congressional proposal to do so — aren’t clear. But the principle certainly is clear: A country that stretches to justify race-based preferences under the law would move to create within its borders not just race-based laws but an entirely new race-based government.

The Obama administration, perhaps aware of how offensive and impracticable the idea is, hasn’t yet entered the proposal into the Federal Register. The White House has merely released an excerpted draft from an “advanced notice of proposed rule making,” which the Office of Management and Budget will have to decide whether to formalize and open for comment. They lost us at Aloha.

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