Friday, May 20, 2016

Hawaii's Legacy of Segregated Schools

          Oliver Brown was a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad living in Topeka, Kansas. His daughter went to a public school. But instead of walking seven blocks from their home to Sumner Elementary. Linda had to ride in a bus every day. The Browns were black. Sumner Elementary was for white students only and it was against the law for Linda to attend.
In 1951, Brown joined others in a class action against his local Board of Education. They sued on the grounds that laws designed to segregate white children from children of color was unconstitutional.
          Racially segregated schools were found all over the country. It was against the law for a white student to go to schools designed for children of color. And of course, children of color were absolutely prohibited from going to a white school.
          After years of arguing their case through the federal courts, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled these laws violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This week marked the sixty-second anniversary of perhaps the most famous opinion from the high court.
That opinion changed the way we do things. Racially-segregated schools are not only unconstitutional, but the changes in our society have made it repugnant for most people. But what about Hawaii?
Unlike the Jim Crow South or Kansas in the 1950s, the territory didn’t have black letter laws that racially segregated the schools. It was more subtle than that. Hawaii took different approach.
Mandatory education for children in the islands goes back to the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1835, the government started requiring children to go to school. Back then, most of the children were either Hawaiian or the descendants of white missionaries. The mass immigration of Asian and other European workers had yet to come.
Segregation started when the missionaries, most if not all of whom were white, built schools designed primarily to educate their own children and to isolate them from the native population. Perhaps the most famous example of these schools is Punahou School established in 1842. (In contrast, the Lahainaluna Seminary in 1831 was designed to educate the Hawaiian people.).
By the time the United States acquired the islands as a territory at the start of the twentieth century, the majority of public school students were Asian-American children of plantation laborers. The few haole students tended to go to private schools.
But after the expansion of the military in the islands brought a new wave of whites migrated to the islands, newcomers were hesitant to send their children to school with the Asian-American sons and daughters of plantation workers.
The federal government reported in 1920 that many white and Hawaiian parents did not want to send their kids to public schools “because their children would be outnumbered in their classes by the orientals, who have little in common with them and whose language difficulties impede the progress of all.” Parents also complained that integrating proper English speakers with students from non-English speaking homes held them back. They also feared that if they were left with a majority of “non-American” students, they would be susceptible to foreign influences.
The territory’s education agency, the Department of Public Instruction, responded by setting up special schools for students who were proficient in proper English. Pidgin wouldn’t cut it.
And so a dual education system grew in Hawaii. English Standard Schools like Roosevelt High School on Oahu or Kaunoa Elementary in Spreckelsville on Maui had a majority of haole students. Everyone else went to “district schools” like McKinley High School.
As the years went on, criticism mounted. In 1940, a little elementary school in Nuuanu Valley was selected to become an English Standard School. The local kids at Maemae Elementary were going to be bussed out of their community to make way for haoles. Protests erupted in front of Iolani Palace.
Parents with Asian, Hawaiian, and Portuguese surnames petitioned the government arguing that the segregation of children who don’t speak proper English was prejudicial and unfair. After all, it was up to the schools to teach proper English in the first place. Maemae Elementary ended up becoming a partial English Standard School anyways and some kids had to be bussed out.
Gradually, the pressure lead to the end of the English Standard School system. By the time the Browns won their case in 1954, Hawaii had become more integrated. Of course, there were still holdouts. Maui held on to its English Standard Schools until 1963.
Most people these days agree with the holding and agree that the Hawaii experiment was a bad one. And yet, to this day, there are still schools that are predominantly white and those where most students are people of color.

It’s still happening.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Factions and Tribalism in the State House

There are 51 elected officials making up the Hawaii House of Representatives, each of whom represents districts throughout the state. Forty-four are Democrats, seven Republicans. That tells us very little.
This week, the online publication Civil Beat uncovered the fluid and chaotic groups that constitute the House. The groupings in the House are much more fractious than Democrat versus Republican.
The tribalism in the House begins (and ends) with Maui's own Joe Souki. Souki has been in the House since 1982. He served as speaker of the House for six years in the 1990s.
So what does the speaker even do? The speaker is the top spot presiding over the business of the House. The speaker's role is to assign other House members to subcommittees and dole out who presides as chair over what. Needless to say, it's a powerful position. Legislation lives and dies by the complicated procedure of hearings, committee reviews and readings in the House.
Anyway, Souki presided over the House for six years before stepping down from the position in 1999. Maui has had its fair share. Before Souki, Elmer Cravalho of Paia and Kihei's Tadao Beppu both held the post in the 1960s and '70s.
The new speaker came from Oahu, is younger than Souki by at least 20 years, but had been in the House for a longer period of time. Calvin Say had been representing the district covering St. Louis Heights, Palolo and Kaimuki since the late '70s. When he became the speaker, he was the first Chinese-American to hold the post.
Say's speakership was long and contentious. He held the post for 13 years. Say developed a system of allies in the House and sidelined those who opposed him.
For a Democrat, he's pretty conservative. For example, Say drew a lot of heat in 2010 over civil unions. After then-Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed the bill, progressives and labor unions pressured the Legislature to hold a special session to override the veto. The Senate appeared to be willing, but Say's House wouldn't budge. The matter was dead.
Then there was the issue of where Say actually lived. During his time as speaker, Say faced a residency challenge. Did Say really live in the district he represented? His house on 10th Avenue became the subject of controversy in 2014 and 2015. It may have looked vacant, but he was vindicated and successfully proved what he had said: He resides in Kaimuki.
No one really cared by then. He had been stripped of the speakership. Over the years of Say's leadership, a number of sidelined representatives formed a group of their own and were named the Dissidents.
In 2013, the Dissidents were able to ally with some moderate Republicans who were used to being sidelined and took down Say and his allies. The new speaker needed to have experience and needed to keep the peace among Dissidents, Republicans and others along for the ride. They brought back Souki.
Souki has been speaker for the last three years, and he's still going strong. Souki has his supporters who are neither Dissidents nor Say supporters. In the three years under his leadership, the name Dissident has stuck, even though they are a majority of lawmakers in the House and even though they basically can dictate policy, finance and procedure as they see fit.
They've flexed their muscles over the last three years, passing progressive legislation. They've established marijuana dispensaries, hailed the long-awaited, same-sex marriage bill, and have addressed other progressive causes.
Of course, Say is still around, but his supporters are dwindling. The only real opposition is a handful of hardline, conservative Republicans, and a few splinter groups that break from the pack every now and again.
One group is nicknamed the Fab Four, and it's spearheaded by Upcountry's Kyle Yamashita. Yamashita's group started as just four, but lately his number has increased to include a few others. They are less progressive than the majority and often vote as a group on bills. Their positions are oftentimes indistinguishable from another splinter group, the Three Amigos, named after three Oahu Representatives.
In case you're wondering, Maui is doing well. Angus McKelvey is a longtime Souki supporter. Kaniela Ing and Justin Woodson are considered Dissidents (even though Woodson wasn't around when Say was speaker). Lynn DeCoite is new to the scene and her allegiances aren't yet known.
Now that the business of the House is over, the election campaigns can begin in earnest. Splinter groups come and go. Even majorities dwindle. This is the true ebb and flow of Hawaii politics. All of them are Democrats. We get that, but the alliances formed in the People's House are much harder to discern. The divisions don't seem to be based on policy or geography. It's, well, just politics.