The affirmative action housing program that no one discusses

Op-ed: Lessons from over a hundred years of affirmative action in Hawai’i.

The affirmative action discussion is usually about workplaces or higher education, but never about housing. Why not? In Hawai’i, there is a century-old Native Hawaiian Land and Housing Program, arguably one of the oldest affirmative action programs in the country. Despite the lack of national attention this program has received, it offers a hundred years of lessons for any new effort a city, state, or federal government might make to address historic and ongoing racial discrimination.

Everywhere you look, policymakers are discussing how to tackle racial inequalities, resulting from colonization, slavery, segregation and continued oppression. A commonly known and controversial strategy is affirmative action, which refers to programs designed to assert the civil rights of designated classes by taking positive steps to protect them from, in the words of Judge William J. Brennan Jr., “the lingering effects of widespread discrimination.”

Most researchers believe affirmative action was not legally established in the United States until the late 20th century through a series of court decisions interpreting the guarantees of civil rights within the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet affirmative action policies had already taken hold in Hawai’i through a housing and land program for Native Hawaiians, created by the Hawaiian Houses Commission Act (HHCA), in 1920.

This groundbreaking bill was born out of heartbreaking events for the Hawaiian people. Pre-Western contact, approximately 400,000 to over 800,000 people lived in the Hawaiian Islands. However, by 1840 the number of Native Hawaiians had declined by 84% due to disease and the displacement of foreign settlers. In 1893, a group of US-backed sugar and pineapple plantation owners deposed Queen Liliuokalani and lobbied the US president for annexation of Hawaii, which took place in 1898. Before and after the overthrow of the United States, Hawaiians were forcibly removed from their lands and denied the right to practice their native culture, religion or language .

To fight against this disastrous situation, in 1920, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole delivered an impassioned speech to Congress, in which he proclaimed, “The Hawaiian race is passing … and if conditions continue to exist as they do today, this magnificent race of people, my people, will be extinct. from the face of the earth. In response, Congress passed the Hawaiian Houses Commission Act, which reserved 200,000 acres of land across the islands for the ownership of native Hawaiians. Today, the homestead program is run by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which provides thousands of beneficiaries with 99-year homestead leases at $ 1 per year to live, grow crops or raise animals. .

Comprehensive books can and should be devoted to the HHCA to discuss all of its successes and shortcomings, but for now, here are some major lessons that can be gleaned for future affirmative action efforts, especially for programs. of housing and land:

Defining an ethnic, racial or cultural group is difficult and can lead to division. The Hawaiian Houses Commission Act provides benefits to people considered “Native Hawaiians.” While this was not Prince Kuhio’s original intention, when the HHCA was adopted, he defined a native Hawaiian as someone with 50 percent or more of Hawaiian blood. This was done due to the influence of plantation owners who understood that, as Hawaiians increasingly mingled with strangers, this blood quantity threshold would reduce the number of people eligible for the program. Yesterday and today, these demands have created dividing lines between Hawaiians who qualify as beneficiaries and those who do not, and are considered “less than.” (“Native Hawaiian” (lowercase n) refers to people with 50% or more Hawaiian blood.

Affirmative action programs must be associated with a plan. Since Hawaii’s independence, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) has been responsible for the management of the homestead. The agency is under scrutiny for its inability to meet the growing demand for housing from native Hawaiians. Critics of DHHL point to the agency’s underperformance: only 10,000 properties have been leased since the start of the program and today more than 29,000 beneficiaries are on DHHL’s waiting list. This is attributed to bureaucratic constraints, underfunding, limited land and infrastructure, among other factors. Every great vision, including affirmative action, needs a plan.

Recognize the history and significance of the program. Although DHHL is described as a housing lottery program, it is much more. Chapter 43 of the United States Code notes that the “United States has a special responsibility for the well-being of indigenous peoples… including indigenous Hawaiians” and that the Hawaiian Houses Commission Act was intended to “rehabilitate a landless and dying people”. The terrible impacts caused by Western colonization and the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by the United States were further asserted in the 1993 ‘Apology resolution’, in which President Clinton apologized on behalf of the United States for participating in the removal of “the independent monarchy by force”.

In Hawai’i and abroad, there is little talk about why this settlement program was created, or whether it is a revolutionary effort to right the wrongs. genocide and colonization. With more public talk, we could shift the narrative of what DHHL does wrong, to how this program could be improved – understanding that land and housing are just one aspect of a much larger toolbox. that Hawaiians need to live and thrive in their homeland. .

Overall characterizing the Hawaiian settlement program as success or failure seems wrong. Focusing solely on the program’s underperformance would obscure the fact that it has kept thousands of Hawaiians rooted in their land, an achievement that is invaluable to many Indigenous communities. Like many government enterprises with grandiose and virtuous vision, the results are mixed.

Although July 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Hawaiian House Commission Act, it has received no national attention. At a time when affirmative action programs and similar redress efforts are discussed more than ever, we must recognize that we have a precedent which is being set a century and which still affects thousands of people right now.

At the very least, this program should encourage policymakers and planners to consider the possibility of implementing affirmative action housing policies elsewhere in the United States. Although Indigenous Hawaiians faced unique oppression and discrimination, which persist today, the movement to assert Hawaiian rights through access to land and housing provides lessons to reconcile our dark history. with black and brown communities across this country.

By studying this effort and other similar programs around the world, we are better equipped to understand the factors that make implementing affirmative action programs so complex, and how, with the right vision and the right plan, affirmative action can lead to the transformative change our society so desperately needs.

Williamson Chang, Professor of Law, has taught at the William S. Richardson School of Law since 1976. He has been active in service to the Native Hawaiian community and in 2017 he was recognized as Native Hawaiian Patriot of the Year.

Abbey Seitz is a professional community planner and freelance writer with an MA in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa. she founded Planning for Community LLC, a housing and transport consultancy company.

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