Is Hawaii the Bellwether for California?


California used to consider itself the leading state and the bellwether for the entire country. Now that the entrepreneurial initiative has mostly switched to Texas and other such places, and Texas’s infrastructure has pulled ahead of California’s in its quality (I lived in Texas in the 1970s, and it was not so then!), California is, at the very least, still thought of as a bellwether for the whole country, if perhaps a dystopian one. But there is a state that even Californians look to for popular cultural leadership, visit frequently, and admire. And, while it is often said that California became the first “majority-minority” state, it is not true. This other state, which lies far to the southwest of California, has always been “majority-minority.” It is, of course, Hawai’i. (The apostrophe is a letter in Hawaiian, and it is pronounced.) It has wrestled with “multicultural” issues for longer than it has been part of the United States. And one born in Hawai’i is now President of the United States.

The majority of the residents of Hawaii are Asian, the largest number being of Japanese descent with some Chinese and Filipinos and a few Koreans, though Koreans have mostly preferred California. President Obama is exceptional; people of African descent have never been numerous in Hawai’i. Five to ten percent of the people have some percentage of native Hawaiian blood, though there are almost no pure-blood Hawaiians.

On the mainland, whites and blacks are moving out of areas flooded by immigration; in Hawaii, whites (including retirees) and even a few minimum-wage Mexicans, are moving in on a net basis. It is important to note, however, that Hawaii’s Asians are not mostly recent immigrants; they are descended from people who came over in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today’s immigrants have generally preferred California, which had a more vibrant entrepreneurial economy, and on some fronts still does. (The maker of computer chips is probably itching to move to Texas; less so the programmer.) The reason for all this is that Hawaii was so long dominated by the “Big Five” corporations.

The historical reasons for the Big Five, and for Hawaii’s other oddities, are interesting. In the 19th century, a large percentage of Hawaii’s land and economy fell into the hands of a few white (haole) families, like Bishop, Dillingham, Baldwin, and Parker, who sometimes did marry into the local noble (ali’i) caste. The corporations they founded were eventually known as the Big Five. (Some of this heritage is chronicled in the recent film The Descendants.) They brought large numbers of Asians in as contract labor to work the vast fields of pineapple and sugar cane. California had its counterparts, the Irvines, O’Neills, Bixbys, Millers, Hearsts, and more, but they only controlled part of the land and exercised little control of the commercial economy. The rest of the Mexican grants were broken up into smaller farms and ranches soon after the American conquest. (It is where the grants remained intact until recently, such as south Orange County, that you have the notorious “planned communities.”)

Japan was the first main source of Asian labor, but the Japanese came largely from the Ryukyus, Kyushu, and the less developed south of Japan, and were often part of the Eta undercaste that in Japan had butchered animals and cleaned toilets. China, the Azores, and later the Philippines were also sources of labor, but the majority of Hawaiian Asians are of Japanese descent.

In the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in 1954, there was a labor and political movement by which the predominantly Asian workers took control of the territory from the Big Five. They could regulate the Big Five, they could unionize the Big Five, but they did not have legal authority to break up the Big Five (only the federal government could have done that); so both right and left in Hawai’i retained a corporatist rather than an entrepreneurial mentality. The establishment had been Republican, so the workers were Democrats, and Hawai’i entered a long era of Democratic dominance, which continues to this day. The plantation experience is one major reason why most of Hawai’i’s Asians, unlike Asian Californians until recently, have been Democrats.

An interesting fact about Hawai’i is that there are only four functioning local governments, the counties.  There had been a fifth, the Hansen’s Disease (Leper) colony on Kalaupapa Peninsula, which was the lifework of Saint Damien, canonized in 2009. While the counties are divided into “judicial districts” that are marked on some maps, the judicial districts do not have governments. Each county has a “mayor,” but there are no incorporated cities as they are known in other states.

Another force influencing the Hawaiian culture and worldview is the Native Hawaiians. There are almost no pure blooded Native Hawaiians (other than on Ni’ihau), but up to ten percent of the population has some Hawaiian blood. The old pre-Christian culture had some brutal elements. While on the one hand there was premarital sexual freedom, on the other a woman could be killed instantly for eating a banana or a coconut, and a commoner could be killed instantly for letting his shadow fall on a chief. Infanticide was employed in population control and human sacrifices were offered to Madame Pele, the volcano goddess. They had no system of writing. In the days before it became unfashionable to distinguish between “civilized” and “uncivilized,” they were therefore considered “uncivilized.” However they did build permanent stone structures as temples and as “cities of refuge,” places where people who had broken, or were accused of breaking, a kapu (taboo) could go to save their lives. Also there was a vast lore of herbal healing, which survives.

Between 1790 and 1810, Kamehameha the Great united the islands into a single kingdom, and established a monarchy that lasted until 1893, long after Hawai’i had been modernized, Westernized, and largely Christianized, and had already received large numbers of immigrants. It was not any crowned head of Europe that was the first monarch to have his voice recorded, and to travel around the world, but King David Kalaka’ua of Hawai’i. All this is far different from how it was for American Indians of the mainland! Another uniqueness is that the Hawaiian language, spoken daily by hardly a thousand people, a tiny fraction of those who speak, say, Navajo, has nonetheless become part of the culture; a language which has left a long list of words in Hawaiian English, a language in which much locally popular music is recorded, and a tourist attraction in its own right. Its status is in some way similar to that of Irish Gaelic in Ireland. (By comparison, in Palm Springs I have never heard music sung in Cahuilla.)

What, then, of Hawai’i today? There is an active Christian minority, but Pele, the goddess who supposedly lives at Kilauea Crater, regularly gets offerings of flowers and gin. “Haoles” are wary of getting into fights with “locals.” The culture values the ohana, or extended family, but it is hardly Confucian. One might mention at this point Will Durant on later ancient Rome:

“But most of the inflowing peoples had literally been de-moralized by uprootage from their native surroundings, cultures, and codes; … and daily friction with groups of different customs had worn away still more of their custom-made morality.” (Caesar and Christ, p. 366.)

This sort of multiculturalism, however, had nothing to do with the fact that Hawai’i was the first state where same-sex marriage was seriously proposed? No, it was, I believe, a case of imperial judiciary, and same-sex marriage was voted down two to one in November of 1998. If democratic processes continue and are not overridden by judicial fiat, Hawai’i will be one of the last states outside the South to adopt same-sex marriage. And in California, it was the votes of people of color, who would never think of becoming Republicans, that won Proposition 8 and delayed same-sex marriage for some years. It makes me think that the Republican party should be replaced by two new ones; one socially conservative, pro-voucher, fiscally moderate to liberal, and led by people of color; the other, a more semi-libertarian party. Neither, preferably, should bear the name Republican Party.

Howard Ahmanson of Fieldstead and Company, a private management firm, has been interested in these issues for many years.

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