Today, the House will take up the question whether the federal government should recognize ethnic Hawaiians as a new Indian tribe. The Bush administration has promised to veto the bill if it passes, arguing that — in the words of a policy statement — it would “discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups accorded varying degrees of privilege.” The president deserves to be commended for this position.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D., Hawaii). It would create a nine-member panel to decide who counts as a “native” Hawaiian and enroll the members of the “tribe.” This governing entity could then negotiate with federal and state government to acquire land (and would certainly become the beneficiary of huge federal earmarks). It could establish schools that discriminate against non-Hawaiian children. And it could hold elections with racial criteria for participation, immune to challenges under the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. (Indeed, the bill was written to circumvent a 2000 Supreme Court decision that forbade the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs to hold an election in which only “native” Hawaiians could participate.)
Proponents of the bill argue that Hawaiians are merely seeking the recognition already given to Indian tribes, which are allowed to create their own governments. But there are important historical differences. Indian tribes saw their land seized by the federal government. Hawaiians, by contrast, exercised self-government on June 27, 1959, when they voted by an 86 percent margin to make their archipelago the 50th state. And unlike Indian tribes, aboriginal Hawaiians are not geographically segregated, but live interspersed among Hawaiians of all races.
More fundamentally, there is no good reason to recognize racial groups as distinct nations simply because they are ethnically unique. Doing so overturns the idea of E pluribus unum, and sets a terrible and divisive precedent. John Edwards’s fantasy of “two Americas” might well become reality — except that there would be many more than two Americas if every ethnic group followed Hawaii’s example.
The Akaka Bill may pass both houses of this Democratic Congress. Conservative congressional staffers, determined to fight it, have wondered whether they could count on the White House’s support. In 2005, the Bush administration suggested a few changes to the bill rather than opposing it outright. Last year, the bill received 56 Senate votes for cloture. It would have been 59 if all senators had been present, putting it just one vote short of the required 60. There is little doubt that it will pass that threshold this year.
The administration’s opposition this time around, then, is most welcome. Among other things, it denies cover to a handful of Republicans in the House and Senate who are cosponsoring the bill. They include not only Alaska’s congressional delegation, but Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon Smith of Oregon.
Unfortunately, the attempt to divide Americans by race will not end if President Bush vetoes the Akaka Bill. Hillary Clinton voted for it in 2006 — and she may sign it into law yet, if Americans make her their president.