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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Snapshot of Hawai'i begins to reflect reality

Local statisticians and demographic experts have always had trouble with the U.S. Census when it comes to measuring Hawai'i's multi-cultural population.

Neat categories of race or ethnicity just did not fit Hawai'i, where mixed blood is often a sign of pride. Previous Census tabulations didn't help by effectively "forcing" folks to choose one ethnicity or another.

That didn't fit with how Island people looked at themselves.

The latest U.S. Census cures some of those problems by opening up the matter of ethnic description to self-determination. Not only can you choose for yourself who you are, you are invited to select more than one race.

The picture that emerges comes closer to identifying Hawai'i as it sees itself. But it is still far from perfect.

For instance, the opportunity this time around was to declare oneself a particular race, or any combination of races.

What this captures primarily is how we see ourselves, not necessarily how we really are. One example: The latest Census found 9.4 percent of the population saying they were Hawaiian (or other Pacific Islander) and another 14 percent saying they were Hawaiian and Islander plus something else.

We know from other surveys that the percentage of those who are Hawaiian, only, is closer to 1 percent than 9 percent. But 9 percent represents a fair picture of the numbers who do not want to be considered anything else.

The ability to name "Hawaiian-plus" has political implications. It boosts the rolls of those who can make a claim on, and be the target of, any program aimed at Hawaiians.

In total, some 21 percent claimed to be of two or more races, a percentage that is still probably somewhat short of reality. That is, many people still simply named their "dominant" ethnic background.

There are policy implications for Hawai'i in all of this as well. Clearly, the rest of the nation (and the Census that reflects it) does not look on multiculturalism the way we do. As national policy is set, is there room for the way Hawai'i looks at ethnicity and race?

There should be. Because while Hawai'i may be the exception today in claiming multiracial heritage, it won't be for long. It is clear that the entire nation is moving toward a blended, multicultural population.

Hawai'i can teach the rest of the country quite a bit, if it will only listen.