One of my themes in my 2008 reader’s guide to Barack Obama’s memoir, America’s Half-Blood Prince: Obama’s ‘Story of Race and Inheritance’ was that growing up of mixed race in post-war Hawaii was radically different than in most of the rest of the U.S. At Punahou Prep, Obama was “just another mixed kid.” He had to strenuously re-invent himself as black to succeed in politics.
From the New York Times:
Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii
The “aloha spirit” may hold a deep lesson for all of us.
By Moises Velasquez-Manoff, June 28, 2019
HONOLULU — Kristin Pauker still remembers her uncle’s warning about Dartmouth. “It’s a white institution,” he said. “You’re going to feel out of place.”
Dr. Pauker, who is now a psychology professor, is of mixed ancestry, her mother of Japanese descent and her father white from an Italian-Irish background.
Back in Hawaii, being mixed was so common as to be nearly unremarkable. Many of her friends were some mixture of East Asian ethnicities, white, Filipino, Hawaiian and more, and for the most part, everyone hung out with everyone else.
Here is Hawaii’s demographics in 2018:
Note the tiny black percentage (2.2%). Plus a large fraction of Hawaii’s blacks got their through the military, which uses cognitive entrance tests and screens out the worst criminals. Hence, the white-black gap on NAEP public school scores is smallest in Hawaii of any state.
The Dartmouth student body, on the other hand, seemed self-segregated. The nonwhite students primarily stuck with their own race — blacks sat with blacks in the cafeteria, Asians with Asians, Native Americans with Native Americans.
For the first time in her life, she wasn’t sure where she belonged, and she found herself wondering: Does it have to be like this?
A few years later, as a graduate student in psychology at Tufts, she began her first study probing that question. Psychologists argue that “essentialist” thinking — ideas about human beings’ unchangeable essence, their inherent inferiority or the threat they supposedly pose — makes racism possible. Dr. Pauker wanted to know when children started expressing essentialist views of race.
She found that between ages 4 and 11, upper-middle-class children from mostly white neighborhoods around Boston increasingly viewed race as a permanent condition and expressed stereotypes about other racial groups: that blacks were aggressive or, on the flip side, good at basketball; that Asians were submissive and good at math. These children came from public schools in liberal areas. They probably weren’t deliberately taught these stereotypes at home. But they absorbed them from the American ether nonetheless.
Or from trusting their lying eyes.
Obama, growing up in Hawaii, of course was obsessed with basketball.
Would children in Hawaii express the same views? Dr. Pauker repeated the study with middle- and upper-middle-class grade-school students in and around Honolulu, and was not entirely surprised to find that in Hawaii, the children, including those who were white, tended not to express the same essentialist ideas about race. They were not race-blind. They recognized skin color, hair texture and other features commonly associated with race. But they did not attribute to race the inherent qualities — aggression or book smarts — that their mainland brethren did. “They didn’t believe that race was biological,” Dr. Pauker told me.
She had a hypothesis to explain the difference. Whites dominated in the Boston area schools, but were a minority in Hawaii, and always had been. Hawaii also had the highest percentage of mixed-race people by a long shot in the country. (Among them was our first mixed-race president, Barack Obama, who was born there.) Mixed-race people, who make up nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s population of 1.4 million, serve as a kind of jamming mechanism for people’s race radar, Dr. Pauker thinks. Because if you can’t tell what people are by looking at them — if their very existence blurs the imagined boundaries between supposedly separate groups — then race becomes a less useful way to think about people.
Or it could be that in Hawaii, the Japanese and Chinese are less likely to be descended from grad students and more likely to be descended from sugarcane workers? Blacks are both vanishingly rare and likely to be broadly middle class, either military families or eccentrics like poet Frank Marshall or Wilt Chamberlain.
I’m interested in all of this partly because I myself come from a mixed background. I have an Ashkenazi Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother (neither of which, I should point out, is a race). …
But Dr. Pauker belongs to a small group of psychologists, many of them mixed themselves, who have begun to explore the advantages of being multiracial.
Of course, Obama launched his public career by doubling down on his biological black side, not his environmental white preppy and southeast Asian side, as exemplified by the title of his memoir: “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.”
Plenty of research indicates that diversity has many benefits. Diverse groups are better at problem-solving; in mock trials, diverse juries give fairer verdicts; diverse companies are more profitable; researchers argue that diverse countries have stronger economies. And the United States is not only becoming more diverse, it’s also growing more mixed. Mixed-race people are among the fastest-growing segments of the population — between 2.6 percent and 6.9 percent of the population, depending on the study. By 2060, the segment is projected to double.
And yet, at the same time, we seem to be in the throes of a backlash against diversity, against mixing, with many people trying to claw their way back to a largely mythical, more homogeneous past. Could Hawaii show us another way forward? I flew there to find out.
The sacrifices you make …
… Being African-American isn’t easy in Hawaii, either, said Akiemi Glenn, executive director of the Popolo Project in Honolulu. Stereotypes about African-Americans abound, she told me, in part because so few black people live on the islands to push back against them. …
Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the author of “An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases” and an editor at Bay Nature magazine, is a contributing opinion writer.
21st Century genomics has discovered that the main racial division in humanity is between sub-Saharan Africans and the rest of the world. Hawaii is a place where blacks are a tiny and well-selected fraction of the population.
Another interesting aspect is Hawaii’s poor economic performance relative to sky-high expectations in the 1960s. Hawaii today has roughly the same demographics as Silicon Valley, but a snoozy tourism and pineapples economy.