America's motto is "E Pluribus Unum," Latin for "Out of many, one." But Congress is in danger of reading it backward, as the Senate prepares to vote this spring on creating an independent, race-based government for Native Hawaiians.
The House has already passed the bill, which would create a racial spoils system that would hand special privileges to up to one-fifth of Hawaii's population -- including many with only a trace of Hawaiian blood. It could inspire mainland groups such as Hispanic separatists to seek similar spoils, should they ever gain enough political leverage.
The notion is the obsession of Sen. Daniel Akaka, an 85-year-old Democrat whose two decades in the Senate have been so undistinguished that Time magazine has listed him as one of the five worst senators, calling him "living proof that experience does not necessarily yield expertise." The House version of his bill passed along party lines by 245 to 164 in late February, and is now before the Senate. South Carolina's Sen. Jim DeMint and others promise to do all in their power to block it. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee warns that establishing "a new sovereign nation within the United States based solely on race...could turn the United States into the United Nations."
The Akaka bill was born out of an angry reaction to the 2000 case of Rice v. Cayetano, in which the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 7-2 vote, declared unconstitutional a system under which non-Native Hawaiians were barred from voting for or serving as trustees of the state's Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Fearful of losing control of the rich patronage pot that the office, with its $3 billion trust fund, has become, its supporters decided to up the ante and try to skirt the 15th Amendment's mandate for equal voting rights by requiring that the federal government recognize Native Hawaiians in the same manner it recognizes separate governments for American Indians and Alaskan Eskimos.
But a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report has destroyed the notion that the Indian tribe analogy is appropriate. Native Hawaiians, who freely voted in large numbers to join the U.S. as a state in 1959, have never asked to be recognized as an Indian tribe. They not only lack their own system of laws but are dispersed throughout Hawaii and have a high rate of intermarriage with other groups. "The Akaka bill would authorize a government entity to treat people differently based on their race and ethnicity," says Gerald Reynolds, the commission's chairman. "This runs counter to the basic American value that the government should not prefer one race over another."
In Hawaii, debate over the ramifications of the Akaka bill has been stifled, as almost all of its elected officials have signed on to it for fear of being branded insensitive or racist. But none of them want to test the measure by consulting the state's voters directly, such as in a referendum. During the House debate, supporters bitterly fought back attempts to require a statewide popular vote. Polls show about two-thirds opposing the bill. GOP governor Linda Lingle recently threw her weight against the current legislation because it greatly waters down a requirement that any native government cooperate with existing state authorities and recognize state and county regulations.
The potential dangers of approving the Akaka bill are immense. Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, warns that other groups could use the precedent of a new Native Hawaiian government to lodge their own demands. She notes that a group of Hispanic separatists in Arizona once tried to get legislation passed that would have barred anyone whose ancestors were not living in Arizona at the time of the 1848 Mexican War from living in most areas of the state. "Right now, that idea looks like pure fantasy," she writes. "If the Akaka bill becomes law, it will suddenly become more plausible."
The Akaka Bill is a profound mistake. The people of Hawaii are a true melting pot, living in remarkable harmony. Native Hawaiians have so intermarried with people of other ethnicities that more than 90 percent of those who claim Hawaiian heritage do so by virtue of ancestry that is less than 50 percent Hawaiian. Creating a separate government that would subject people who pass a test for "Hawaiian blood" to a different set of legal codes would not produce racial reconciliation. It would be a recipe for permanent racial conflict.
Those who doubt this only have to listen to Sen. Akaka himself, who acknowledges that his bill would open a can of worms. In 2006, National Public Radio reported the senator as saying that the sovereignty granted Native Hawaiians in the bill "could eventually go further, perhaps even leading to outright independence." Sen. Akaka was quoted as adding: "That could be. That could be. As far as what's going to happen at the other end, I'm leaving it up to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren."
After a storm of criticism, Sen. Akaka "clarified" his remarks. No, he doesn't support "independence or secession," he said. But he carefully avoided clarifying whether secession was possible. "After the Native Hawaiian governing entity is recognized, these issues will be negotiated between the entity and the federal and state governments," he wrote. "This is an inclusive and democratic process that cannot be predetermined by those who seek to influence the outcome of the process before it's even started."
The Akaka bill now moves to the Senate, where only one Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, is on record supporting any previous version of the bill. Governor Lingle's opposition may well have an impact on Ms. Murkowski's stance. If all 41 Republicans hold together, they may be able to block this pernicious legislation or at least force significant revisions.
Senators ought to think hard before voting for a bill that may ultimately have the consequence of dividing Hawaii rather than uniting it.