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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 14, 2004

Hawai'i's ethnic rainbow

By John Griffin

Former Gov. John Waihee, a part-Hawaiian whose wife is local Japanese, years ago suggested that the next power group in the Islands could be those of mixed race.

I don't know if "Hapa Power" is yet coming to pass in the political process. Certainly being considered "local" in some born-in-Hawai'i sense (for example, U.S. Rep. Ed Case) or longtime residence (such as Gov. Linda Lingle) is a plus, even if you're a pure haole.

In any event, this is about the rise of mixed-race Americans and changing ethnic groups not only in Hawai'i but elsewhere in the nation. Among other things, it will be a factor this presidential election year.

Hawai'i's special situation was well documented in the 2000 Census. More than 20 percent of our residents reported ancestors of more than one race. Nationwide, only about 2.4 percent of residents indicated a multiracial heritage.

About half of Hawai'i marriages are mixed.

Indeed, as I have written before, upon returning from Mainland trips, Hawai'i may be so far ahead of most other places in the nation that we are considered more of a unique society than an example. We'll get to that later.

Regardless, the continuing news is that other parts of the nation are catching up in their own special ways. These reflect not just racial mixing but a blending of ongoing immigration, migration by Americans around the country and new attitudes among younger generations.

A good benchmark was an article by California researchers Joel Kotkin and Thomas Tseng in a Sunday Advertiser Focus Section last June. It was about "post-ethnic America" and said in part:

"Post-ethnicity reflects not only a growing willingness and ability to cross cultures, but the evolution of a nation in which personal identity is shaped more by cultural preferences than by skin color or ethnic heritage. ...

"This trend will only accelerate. In the America of the 21st century, race and ethnicity are sure to be reinterpreted constantly by succeeding generations, confounding the fears and prejudices of their befuddled elders."

This is most evident in popular youth culture — and in the image-making business that caters to it. The New York Times Sunday Styles section recently carried a front-page spread with pictures

of mixed-race celebrities (Vin Diesel, Derek Jeter, Jessica Alba and others) and this headline:

"Generation E.A.: Ethnically Ambiguous."

The head of a New York advertising agency explained: "Both in the mainstream and at the high end of the marketplace, what is perceived as good, desirable, successful is often a face whose heritage is hard to pin down."

It is, as another executive noted, a case of art imitating life.

Hawai'i, of course, has long featured hapa models. In fact, young local women from Hawai'i have been popular in advertising in Japan for upward to 50 years.

But, if that is so about such places as New York City, Los Angeles and Honolulu, the pattern of change is far from even across the United States.

The results of the 2000 presidential election produced much talk and analysis of the "red states" in the center of the Mainland that went for Republican George Bush and the "blue states" nearer the coasts that went for Democrat Al Gore.

Social scientists talk of several Americas, which are themselves evolving while new residents arrive to replace those who have moved elsewhere.

The red-state heartland — the Midwest, rural New England and parts of the old South — remains least changed, and mostly white. Yet there are also places such as Chicago and some smaller heartland cities where significant numbers of Latinos, Asians and nonwhite immigrants have moved in.

What some still call "the melting pot" — mostly traditional immigrant centers on both coasts plus Texas and Chicago — is cooking with new intensity, more newcomers and leading social and cultural change.

I am tempted to make California, where pure non-Latino whites are now a minority, its own new America. It has great size, a different mixture of social dynamics, major immigration from Mexico and Asia, and at the same time out-migration of old residents to the expanding Sun Belt.

That Sun Belt now stretches across the country from Arizona to the Southeast. Many in its expanding population are fairly affluent white "snowbirds" who fled the North, but also of growing significance are Latino immigrants, who often fill the low-paying jobs, and returning educated blacks who find more upscale positions.

And, of course, it's more complicated than such definitions and snapshots because of generational evolution among both older American groups and immigrants looking for a foothold.

What makes this dynamic all the more exciting or challenging now is that it is going on as the nation enters what looks to me like a three-front contest in the presidential election race.

One of those fronts, perhaps the most important for most Americans now, is the economy, the questions of jobs and growth in a world of seemingly inevitable globalism. The second is foreign policy, led by the debatable war in Iraq but also including our nation's damaged image in the world, flare-ups such as Haiti, and issues involving the Asia-Pacific region.

The third front is cultural issues, now led by the diverting debate and politics of gay marriage but also including the older abortion battle, new questions about immigration, and even morality in the media.

You can argue these are the least important matters compared to the war and economy. But they also play against the changing nation discussed earlier in this column.

It's anybody's guess — or any social scientist's speculation — how Hawai'i fits in these shifting larger national and world pictures. Our economy is improving, although we should do more to diversify and create higher-level jobs for younger generations. We should also care more about foreign policy and opportunities for us to do more in the Asia-Pacific region. We seem to be lagging on the gay marriage issue where we once seemed poised to lead.

I continue to be intrigued by our evolving racial and cultural mix. That includes new immigration from Asia, the Pacific islands and Latin America, the old flows of Mainlanders coming and local folks leaving, and new generations of intermarriage. (That last one makes the old game of guessing Hawai'i peoples' racial backgrounds much more difficult.)

Such intermarriage makes us ever more a melting pot, and yet, thank goodness, various cultural groups also make the picture of Hawai'i still a mosaic of races and ethnicity. Novelist James Michener's blending "golden people" live within the racial rainbow.

Some day this may translate more into politics along the lines former governor Waihee seemed to indicate. The questions of Hawaiian identity and sovereignty also remain among our unresolved issues that need more understanding and attention.

Yes, the anti-haole beating incident in Waimanalo reminds us that we are far from perfect. Still, as Hawai'i and the nation gear up for some tough election battles, this CHE (coast haole emeritus) remains glad our racial-ethnic front is, on balance, such a positive example, even if the rest of the nation is mostly occupied with its own cultural variations.

John Griffin is former editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages and a frequent contributor.