Politics & Policy

Hawaiian Upside-Down Cake

An island far from "e pluribus unum."

This week, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced its opposition to S. 147, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2005, which it found to “discriminate on the basis of race.”

It is possible the Senate will be asked in the next few weeks to consider this legislation, and I hope my colleagues will agree with the Civil Rights Commission and oppose this legislation.

Here is what the commission had to say:

The Commission recommends against passage of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2005, (S. 147) as reported out of committee on May 16, 2005, or any other legislation that would discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups accorded varying degrees of privilege.”

This recommendation from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is significant because that commission was founded specifically to protect the rights of minorities and ensure equal protection for all Americans under the law.

The bill would create a separate, independent, race-based government for Native Hawaiians. This would reverse the way we have done things from the beginning in this country. It would turn upside down the central idea of what it means to be an American.

Each day, in classrooms around America, at civic gatherings, and here in Congress, we rise and pledge allegiance to “one nation . . . indivisible”–not divisible.

Our national motto, e pluribus unum, is “one from many”–not many from one. Our constitution guarantees equal opportunity without regard to race–not based upon race.

Hawaiians are Americans. They became United States citizens in 1900. They have saluted the American flag, paid American taxes, fought in American wars. In 1959, 94 percent of Hawaiians reaffirmed that commitment to become Americans by voting to become a state.

Becoming an American has always meant giving up allegiance to your previous country and pledging allegiance to your new country, the United States of America.

This goes back to Valley Forge when George Washington himself signed and then administered this oath to his officers: “I . . . renounce, refuse, and abjure any allegiance or obedience to [King George III]; and I do swear that I will to the utmost of my power, support, maintain and defend the said United States. . . .”


Since those times, every new citizen of the United States has taken basically the same oath. Last year, more than 500,000 new Americans raised their right hand and said these words: “. . . I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen . . . I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States . . . and bear true faith and allegiance to the same. . . .”

America is different because, under our constitution, becoming an American can have nothing to do with ancestry. That is because America is an idea, not a race. We are united by principles expressed in our founding documents, such as liberty and democracy and the rule of law, not by our multiple ancestries. An American can technically become a citizen of Japan, but would never be considered “Japanese.” But if a Japanese person wants to become a citizen of the United States, he or she must become an American.

A few years ago I attended the Italian-American dinner here in Washington, D.C. There were cheers for Scalia, the justice. For Stallone, the actor. For Tagliabue, the commissioner. And for Pelosi, the congresswoman. They were all there.

But what struck me most about the evening was not just the pride in Italian heritage. It was the spontaneous pride in America. You felt it in the singing of our national anthem, in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and in the speeches. They were proud of where their ancestors had come from. They were even prouder of having become Americans.

It is suggested that “native Hawaiians” are different because they lived on the islands of Hawaii before Asian and white settlers came there, and that their previous government was undermined by Americans who came. So, the argument goes, they should be treated as an American Indian tribe.

But U.S. law has specific requirements for recognition of an Indian tribe. A tribe must have operated as a sovereign for the last 100 years, must be a separate and distinct community, and must have had a preexisting political organization. Native Hawaiians do not meet those requirements. In 1998 the State of Hawaii acknowledged this in a Supreme Court brief in Rice v. Cayetano, saying: “The tribal concept simply has no place in the context of Hawaiian history.”

If the bill establishing a “native Hawaiian” government were to pass, it would have the dubious honor of being the first to create a separate nation within the United States. While Congress has recognized preexisting American Indian tribes before, it has never created a new one. This is a dangerous precedent. This is not much different than if American citizens who are descended from Hispanics that lived in Texas before it became a republic in 1836 created their own tribe, based on claims that these lands were improperly seized from Mexico. Or it could open the door to religious groups, such as the Amish or Hassidic Jews, who might seek tribal status to avoid the constraints of the Establishment Clause. If we start down this path, the end may be the disintegration of the United States into ethnic enclaves.

It is suggested that recognizing diversity is an American tradition. The diversity of the United States of America is a great strength, but not its greatest. Israel is diverse. Iraq is diverse. Bosnia is diverse. Great Britain has been recently been reminded that diversity by itself can create dangers as well as strengths. The unique accomplishment of the United States of America is not our diversity; it is that we have molded our multiple ancestries and magnificent diversity into a single nation based upon a set of common principles, language and traditions.

Hawaii itself is a proud example of that diversity. According to the 2000 Census, 40 percent of Hawaiians are of Asian descent. 24 percent are white. Nine percent said they were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders. Seven percent claimed Hispanic ethnicity and two percent were black. 21 percent of Hawaiians reported two or more racial identities. Their two senators are of native Hawaiian and Japanese ancestry. Their governor is Jewish. But what unites Hawaii is not its diversity, but its common Hawaiian traditions and the fact that Hawaiians are all Americans.

The proposed new government for “native Hawaiians” would be based solely upon race. Surely we have by now learned our lesson about treating people differently based upon race. Our most tragic experiences have occurred when we have treated people differently based upon race, whether they were African Americans, Native American or those who lived in the Hawaiian Kingdom.

In the documents to which we have pledged allegiance, the way we have sought to right those wrongs is to guarantee respect for each American as an individual, regardless of his or her race. This legislation instead would compound those old wrongs. It would create a separate government, and separate rules–perhaps later even separate schools–based solely upon race.

To destroy our national unity by treating Americans differently based upon race is to destroy what is most unique about our county. It would begin to make us another United Nations instead of the United States of America

The Senate should defeat this legislation that creates a separate, race-based government for those of native Hawaiian descent. This idea is the reverse of what it means to become an American. Instead of making us one nation indivisible, it divides us. Instead of guaranteeing rights without regard to race, it makes them depend solely upon race. Instead of becoming “one from many,” we would become many from one.

Senator Lamar Alexander is a Republican from Tennessee.


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