There once was a popular newspaper feature called “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” It highlighted incongruous and astounding things, then showed they were true. In that vein the Senate was discussing a bill that would have carved out of the United States a new sovereign nation based solely on race.
It’s true. The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act would have created a separate, independent, race-based government for Native Hawaiians.
But, you say, Hawaiians are Americans. They are. In 1900 they became U.S. citizens. Ever since, they have saluted the flag, paid U.S. taxes, fought in our wars. In 1959, 94% of all Hawaiians voted in favor of Hawaii becoming a state.
Had this bill won the backing of 60 senators yesterday—it fell four votes short—it would have turned on its head the very definition of what it means to be an American. Every day, in classrooms, at civic gatherings and in Congress, we rise and pledge allegiance to “one nation, indivisible”—not divisible.
Our national motto, e pluribus unum, means “one from many”—not “many from one.” Our Constitution guarantees equal opportunity without regard to race, not because of it.
Going back to the Revolutionary War when George Washington signed and administered to his officers an oath to renounce allegiance to King George III, becoming an American has meant giving up allegiance to one’s previous country and declaring allegiance to the United States of America.
Every year some half a million new Americans take an oath to “…renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen…”
This nation is unique because, under our constitution, becoming an American has nothing to do with ancestry. America is an idea; Americans are a people, not a race. Our founding documents give us the principles that unite us—liberty, representative democracy, the rule of law. These do not come from our various ancestries.
Americans whose ancestors came from many other places celebrate that ancestry, whether it be from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas. In these celebrations they show their pride in where their ancestors came from, but they are most proud of being Americans.
Proponents of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act say that “native Hawaiians” are “different” because they lived on the Hawaiian Islands before Asian and white settlers came and before their government was undermined by Americans. Thus, the proponents claim, they should be treated like an American Indian tribe. The suggested parallel does not exist.
To be recognized as an Indian tribe under U.S. law, a group must have operated as sovereign for the previous 100 years, must be a distinct community, and must have had a preexisting political organization. Native Hawaiians do not meet any of these requirements. The state of Hawaii acknowledged this in a 1998 Supreme Court brief in the Rice vs. Cayetano case, stating, “The tribal concept simply has no place in the context of Hawaiian history.”
Had this bill passed—creating a separate government for “native Hawaiians”—it would have set a dangerous precedent for which there might be no end in sight. Congress has recognized pre-existing American Indian tribes, but it has never created one. If this bill had passed, what would be next? Descendants of Hispanics who lived in Texas before it became a republic in 1836 might seek to create their own tribe, based on claims that their land was seized from Mexico. Amish or Hassidic Jewish groups might seek tribal status to get around First Amendment protections against giving preferences to a particular religion.
This bill was cited by some as a good example of “diversity.” It was no such thing. Diversity is an American strength, but not its most important one. Many other countries are diverse: Iraq, Bosnia, France—to name a few—but their diversity is beset by troubles. What sets the U.S. apart is its ability to mold its multiple ancestries and diversity into a single nation based upon common principles, language and traditions.
The proposed government for “native Hawaiians” would be based solely on race. Surely we have learned our lesson about treating people differently based on race. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—created to protect the rights of minorities—opposed the bill because it “…would discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups according varying degrees of privilege.”
As a nation, we have sought to right old wrongs by guaranteeing respect for each American as an individual, regardless of race. This “native Hawaiian” legislation would have compounded the old wrongs and could have been, unintentionally, the first step in the disuniting of these United States.