Op-ed: Lessons from over a hundred years of affirmative action in Hawai’i.
The discussion of affirmative action usually involves workplaces or higher education, but never housing. Why not? In Hawaiʻi, there is a century-old land and housing program for Native Hawaiians, arguably one of the oldest affirmative action programs in the country. Despite the lack of national attention this program has received, it offers a hundred years of lessons for any new effort a city, state, or federal government might devise to counter historic and current racial discrimination.
Everywhere you look, policy makers are discussing how to address racial inequality, resulting from colonization, slavery, segregation and continued oppression. A well-known and controversial strategy is affirmative action, which refers to programs intended to affirm the civil rights of the designated classes by taking affirmative action to protect them against, in the words of Judge William J. Brennan Jr., “the lingering effects of widespread discrimination.”
Most scholars believe that affirmative action was not legally established in the United States until the late 20th century. by a series of court rulings interpreting civil rights guarantees under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet affirmative action policies had already taken hold in Hawaiʻi through a housing and land program for native Hawaiians, created by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA), in 1920.
This groundbreaking legislation was born out of heartbreaking events for the people of Hawaii. Pre-Western contact, approximately 400,000 to over 800,000 people lived in the Hawaiian Islands. However, by 1840 the number of Native Hawaiians had declined by 84% due to illness and displacement by foreign settlers. In 1893, US-backed group of sugar and pineapple plantation owners depose Queen Liliuokalani and pressure US president for annexation of Hawaii, which took place in 1898. Before and after the American overthrow, Hawaiians were forcibly removed from their lands and denied the right to practice their native culture, religion, or language.
To combat this disastrous situation, in 1920, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole gave an impassioned speech to Congress, in which he proclaimed, “The Hawaiian race is passing away…and if conditions continue to exist as they do now, this splendid race of people, my people, will pass away from the surface of the earth. In response, Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which set aside 200,000 acres of land across the islands for ownership by native Hawaiians. Today, the homesteading program is operated by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which offers thousands of beneficiaries 99-year farm leases at $1 a year to live, grow crops or raise animals.
Entire books can and should be devoted to the HHCA discussing all of its successes and flaws, but for now, here are some major lessons that can be learned for future affirmative action efforts, especially for health care programs. housing and land:
Defining an ethnic, racial or cultural group is difficult and can be divisive. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act provides benefits to people who are considered “native Hawaiians”. Although not Prince Kuhio’s original intention, when the HHCA was adopted it defined a Native Hawaiian as someone with 50% or more Hawaiian blood. This was done due to the influence of plantation owners who realized that as Hawaiians increasingly mixed with foreigners, this quantum blood threshold would reduce the number of people eligible for the program. Then and now, these requirements have created dividing lines between Hawaiians who qualify as beneficiaries and those who do not, and are considered “less than.” (“Native Hawaiian” (lowercase n) refers to people with 50% or more Hawaiian blood. “Native Hawaiian” (uppercase N) refers to all people of Hawaiian ancestry, regardless of blood count.)
Affirmative action programs must have a plan. Since the creation of the State of Hawaii, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) has been responsible for the management of homesteads. The agency is under scrutiny for its failure to meet the growing demand for housing from native Hawaiians. DHHL’s critics point to the agency’s underperformance: only 10,000 family properties have been rented since the program began and today more than 29,000 beneficiaries are on DHHL’s waiting list. This is attributed to bureaucratic constraints, underfunding, lack of land and infrastructure, among other factors. Every great vision, including positive action, needs a plan.
Recognize the history and significance of the program. Although DHHL is described as a housing lottery program, it is much more than that. Chapter 43 of the United States Code notes that “the United States has a special responsibility for the welfare of Indigenous peoples…including Native Hawaiians” and that the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act was intended to “rehabilitate a landless and dying people”. The terrible impacts caused by Western colonization and the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by the United States have been confirmed in the 1993 ‘Apology Resolution’, in which President Clinton apologized on behalf of the United States for having participated in the elimination of “the independent monarchy by force”.
In Hawaiʻi and abroad, there is little talk about why this homesteading program was created, or that it is a groundbreaking effort to right the wrongs of genocide. and colonization. With more public discourse, we could shift the narrative from what DHHL is doing wrong, to how this program could be improved – understanding that land and housing are just one aspect of a much larger toolkit necessary for Hawaiians to live and prosper in their homeland.
Characterizing the Hawaiian homesteading program globally as a success or failure seems misguided. To focus solely on the program’s underperformance would obscure the fact that it has enabled thousands of Hawaiians to remain rooted in their land, an invaluable achievement for many native communities. Like many government enterprises with a grand and virtuous vision, the results are mixed.
Although July 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, it has received no national attention. At a time when affirmative action programs and similar reparations efforts are underway discussed more than ever, we must recognize that we have a precedent that has been brewing for a century and is still impacting thousands of people right now.
At the very least, this program should encourage policy makers and urban planners to consider the possibility of implementing affirmative action housing policies elsewhere in the United States. Although Native Hawaiians faced unique oppression and discrimination, which persists today, the movement to assert Hawaiian rights through access to land and housing provides lessons for reconciling our dark history. with black and brown communities across this country.
By studying this effort and other similar programs around the world, we are better equipped to understand the factors that make implementing affirmative action programs so complex, and how, with the right vision and plan, positive action can lead to the transformative change our society so desperately needs.
Williamson Chang, a law professor, has taught at the William S. Richardson School of Law since 1976. He is active in serving the Native Hawaiian community and in 2017 was recognized as the Native Hawaiian Patriot of the Year.
Abbey Seitz is a professional urban planner and freelance writer with a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She founded Planning for Community LLC, a housing and transport consulting company.