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Editorial | Island Voices

Racism and localism in Hawaii politics has dark side

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Mufi Hannemann, seeking a union endorsement, says: "I look like you, you look like me. … And even for our Caucasian brothers in the audience, I’m local to the max." Kirk Caldwell leads his first radio ad with "I’m a local boy—born in Waipahu, raised in Hilo."

Both face haole opponents not born and raised in Hawaii. Coincidence? Or not-so-subtle racism and localism, as in vote for me and against them because of race and origin?

It could be just identification, nothing new to political communication. Voters vote for candidates with whom they identify, through shared values, experiences, beliefs and other characteristics. Candidates should and do tell their stories for voters to make those judgments. And candidates do and should highlight fair differences among themselves.

But there’s a fine line between that and purposefully playing to prejudices and divisions, tearing rather than strengthening our social fabric. Then it becomes about the candidate’s character and capability to unite and lead a diverse society.

Racism is easy to recognize along these lines. Ethnicity is one part of each of us and our story, and it’s fair enough for voters to factor it in. But if a candidate’s message is "I’m better because I’m hapa and my opponent’s haole," or "I’m haole and my opponent’s not," that’s wrong whether it’s Hawaii or New York or Alabama. It also calls into question the candidate’s judgment given our multiethnic community.

Localism is much more elusive. Leaving aside the endless debate over who and what is "local", let’s agree that it’s crucial for most of us voters to ask whether a candidate appreciates and will protect the special uniqueness of our Hawaii, and to factor a candidate’s story into our answer.

But it has a dark side, especially in the wrong hands. It is too often used as a disguise for racism, especially when local is defined by ethnicity. It fosters a closed view that only local counts, and the non-locals among us and rest of the world have nothing to offer. It fosters the politics of division and exclusion (think the bumper sticker, Locals Only, on the door of government), and belittles those who, while not meeting some definitions of local, contribute equally if not more to Hawaii. And, since many, if not most, Hawaii voters today were not born and raised here, it’s high-risk politics.

We have tolerated subtle racism and not-so-subtle localism in Hawaii politics for a long time now; I’ve fallen into that trap myself. That we’ve done better at making our diversity work than many other places is no excuse; that hasn’t been and won’t be good enough. And we can ill-afford to backslide into those deep dark divisions of our past.

This election year, we should send the message that there’s no room anymore for candidates who cross the line. Watch for it, vote against it.


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