Why Ethnicity Matters in Hawai`i

by Bob Stauffer 12/5/98


    Hawai`i is the only State in the nation with no ethnic majority.  We are also the only State where the ruling class consists of people of color. Wouldnít it be nice if we could show the world what it means to be color-blind in the worlds of economics and politics?

    There are four general classes that are involved with the economy and politics of Hawai`i.  In terms of economic and political success, they rank in this order:  the Old Immigrants (AJAs and Chinese-Americans), the Whites, the Hawaiians, and the New Immigrants.1

    Since at least 1990, the Old Immigrant households have made significantly more money each year than the other three classes.  The Old Immigrants were also the class that had to work the least to get that money:  the percentage of them actually working for a salary is the lowest of the four.  Not surprisingly, they were the class with the highest percent of households having income from the "propertied" sources of interest, dividends, and rentals.2

    The poorer classes in Hawai`i do not get pensions and often have to work through their retirement years.  Another reason the Old Immigrants have the fewest numbers actually working is that they have the highest number receiving pensions.

    A further reason why the Old Immigrants have done so well is that they strongly come in first in government employment here.  Public employment is so desirable in Hawai`i not only because it pays far more than the private sector for most types of jobs, but also because it hands out significantly greater retirement packages.

    The Old Immigrants also come in first, by far, of the four classes in terms of not having to be unemployed.  They are also far ahead of the other classes in terms of having the fewest families below the poverty line.  (Because that poverty-line figure is based largely on Mainland assumptions, a better judge of poverty in Hawai`i is the measure of persons below an income figure twice the official poverty rate.  Here the Old Immigrants again come out far ahead of the other classes by having far fewer people below that poverty level.)

    In a State where the poor and a lot of the middle-class often have to rent instead of owning their homes, and therefore have to often move as landlords sell their units or give them to their children, the statistic of having lived in the same dwelling for at least five years is important.  Here, again, we see the Old Immigrants significantly on top.

    In many ways the bottom line of all political-economic statistics in Hawai`i is to see how many families own their own homes but donít have to double-up or triple-up (or worse) with their own adult kids or relatives (and their kids).  The Old Immigrantsí rate here is 67%, the Whites are 41%, the Hawaiians 29%, and the New Immigrants are 27%.

    These last dismal statistics also show how our political/economic policies in Hawai`i have been such a failure.  On the Mainland or many other countries, over two-thirds of families own their own homes.  The common local occurrence of 15 or 20 (or even 30 or 40) people, including several complete households, all under one roof is nearly unheard of elsewhere.

    The only statistic here where the Old Immigrants fail is in education.  Whites here have a significantly higher educational level.  This may explain Whitesí frustration is coming in so far behind in the other statistics.

    In the last election newspaper articles which mentioned ethnicity were sometimes criticized as divisive.  I agree; articles like this one Iím writing here are indeed divisive.

    But let us look at the politics which cause these articles to get written.  By the time he left office, Gov. Ariyoshi (a candidate of the Old Immigrants) had three-quarters of his cabinet filled with Old Immigrants.  By 1990, half of the Senate and 60% of the House were Old Immigrants, including a significant number of the leadership and nearly all of the key staff officials.

    Last week the House reorganized.  The reform, at least in terms of the four classes, was no reform at all.  Sixty percent of committees are going to be run by Old Immigrants.  The Governor also organized his cabinet.  Sixty percent there were also Old Immigrants.

    (When looking at the political spoils of the class competition here, also impressive are the gender numbers: over 70% of the cabinet is male as are most legislative leaders.)

    Old Immigrants trace their economic success to their earlier political success (they took over government here long before they overtook the Hawaiians and Whites on the economic ladder).  Old Immigrants continue to control politics here because our political system has less than 40% of adults voting in elections Ė and a significant number of those voters are Old Immigrants.  In nearly all cases, the winning candidate in each legislative race is from the number one or two ethnic group within that district based on who is registered and who is voting.  With a small minority of adults, but a large number of voters, the Old Immigrants are the winners over half of the time.

    The election system that produces a mayor in 1992 with only 8% of the adults voting for him (Harris), a governor in 1994 with only 15% of adults, and a governor in 1998 with only 21% of adults (Cayetano in the last two cases) is a system designed to keep the status quo in place.  Not surprisingly, all key officials of the election system are Old Immigrants.

    There are undoubtedly some observers who comment on ethnicity here in order to create division.  But many of us do it for a completely different reason: to explain what is going on.  The real divisiveness here comes from a ruling class that history now clearly shows is a class of people very intent on keeping the spoils for themselves.

Footnotes and References

1.   The classes and their names are entirely not precise.  Some "Old" Immigrant families, like that of Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, came here only in the last generation, while some of the "New" Immigrants (like some Filipino or Korean families) have been here for four generations or more.

    Some observers also point out the very high numbers of people here of mixed ancestry, as if this fact obscures the competition between the four classes.  This view has some weight, but I look to the lessons of Hawai`i and Bosnia.

    When the chips were down, for example, the significant mixed-ancestry population of Bosnia stood not for a mixed ethnic-free Bosnia, but instead shot each other apart by joining one or the other of their three classes in their recent civil war.  Here in Hawai`i, the same is true.  For example, if a mixed ("chop-sui") person showed no allegiance to one of the established classes here, then there would be no Hawaiian class because over 95% of the Hawaiian class is actually mixed.  Go to the first reference to this footnote.

2.  The series of economic statistics used throughout this essay are taken from Census Bureau, U.S. Government, 1990 CP-2-13. 1990 Census of Population. Social and Economic Characteristics Hawaii. U.S. Government: 1993. Iím happy to share my methodology and figures if youíre interested.  Go to the first reference to this footnote.