Sixty years ago, on Aug. 21, 1959, Hawaii became a state. It was a day that capped decades of work to defeat oligarchs, racists and fearmongers.
To some it was the culmination of more than 100 years of consistent American efforts to add Hawaii’s star to the flag. Here in Hawaii, it was met with practically universal celebration.
And why not? As a territory, Hawaii had less political autonomy than the 13 colonies before the American Revolutionary War. It had existed under an oligarchy. Statehood meant Hawaii would finally have a measure of the freedom and self-government denied since annexation.
Its proponents in Congress hailed it as a hopeful step towards decolonization. Indeed, the theme of self-determination was consistent throughout the hearings that would decidethe fate of Hawaii’s bid for statehood.
This was not a new desire in Hawaii. Long before the American-backed overthrow and annexation of Hawaii, King Kamehameha III considered annexing Hawaii to America. Not because he was a budding American patriot, but because Hawaii was continually being trampled on and forced to concede to the imperial interests of the French, Russians, British and the Americans.
Particularly pressing seems to have been bands of failed forty-niners who kept landing on Oahu trying to foment rebellion and start their own banana republic. Better, the king seems to have thought for a moment, to throw in his hat with the colonial power that would at least offer him some independence.
Hawaii’s first revolution was fought for similar reasons when Robert Wilcox rallied against the loss of suffrage and civil rights brought by the Bayonet Constitution. The great loss of self-determination that occurred with annexation was held back for a time by the Ku’e. Wilcox would be back for a counter-revolution that was quickly outgunned.
Even Prince Kuhio’s pivot to the Republican Party of the annexationists was performed with autonomy in mind: He wanted to secure the freedom and future of Hawaii and its people and knew land was the key.
The push for statehood occurred in this same vein. The great impetus was for self-determination, greater rights, greater self-governance. At first blush statehood seems like progress. Perhaps it was, but it was also a dead-end. Statehood brought with it the right to vote and the right to representation, but not self-determination. It brought change, but not progress for the average citizen.
The time since statehood has been one of accelerated change in every realm of life. Tourism grew from a secondary industry to dominating the economy.
We are faced with a housing crisis that began shortly after statehood and shows no signs of ending. We struggle to provide a future for the next generation here. The lives of those of us who stay are increasingly dominated by the reality of multiple jobs, never-ending traffic, and less and less time for the family, community and aloha that make Hawaii.
Just as disappointing as what has changed is what hasn’t. In too many ways, our economy resembles that of the plantation days: centered around low-wage jobs, driven by corporate interests and reliant on environmental degradation.
The consistent theme of socio-political life since statehood seems to be the same: We are not building the future we want. Statehood ended colonialism, but it did not bring self-determination. As a state we ceded our identity as a separate place.
We are American, not Hawaiian — native or otherwise — as many would claim in the lead-up to statehood. We have entered a political and economic relationship that gives no privilege to those of us born here; indeed, it disadvantages you. Income dictates where you can live, and as our mainland peers make more in relative and absolute income than locals, they consequently have more right to Hawaii than the family who can visit generations in the local Chinese cemetery.
This is not a repudiation of our American citizenship nor the ties that bind us there. It simply is a suggestion that statehood isn’t what we need. Other options that grant much needed autonomy while still recognizing the reliance and historical ties between political entities abound in the Pacific. Niue, an island in the South Pacific, for example, retains autonomy while still granting its citizens the privileges and duties of being Kiwi.
The plantation worker who voted for statehood in 1959 hoped for her share in the American Dream. She voted for self-determination and greater economic opportunity for her children. What instead seems to have happened is her children are stuck with much the same work in an economic and political landscape still dominated by outside interests.
If Hawaii wishes for something akin to the American Dream for its own citizens, we should start by questioning whether statehood is really the model that serves that end.