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Jewish World ReviewAug. 9, 1999 /27 Av, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Bubba's ballot racism -- THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION, which has long favored dispensing jobs, college admissions and government contracts on the basis of race, has now decided that voting can be restricted by race as well.

Last week, the Clinton Justice Department filed an amicus brief arguing that the state of Hawaii has the right to prohibit whites, blacks, Asians and others from voting in certain state elections. At issue is a 20-year-old state law that governs elections for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), a state board that dispenses millions of dollars of public funds.

In 1996, Harold Rice tried to vote in a state election to choose trustees to the OHA, but was turned away at the polls. Why? Because although he is a state resident and a native of Hawaii whose lineage in the state goes back several generations, Rice fails to meet the state's definition of "native Hawaiian." And only Hawaiian natives can vote in the election of state trustees for the OHA. Hawaii counts as "natives" only those persons who are "descendants of the aboriginal people inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands ... in 1778, ..." or "any descendant of not less than one-half part of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778." Since Rice is white, he can't vote -- nor can any black, Asian, American Indian or Hispanic living in Hawaii for that matter.

This kind of voting restriction was supposed to have been outlawed by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which says that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude." Of course, the 15th Amendment wasn't fully obeyed by Southern states for almost 100 years after it was adopted, so Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, giving the U.S. Justice Department the power to monitor and intervene when any state interfered with the right of citizens to vote because of race or color.

Now, Clinton Justice Department lawyers have turned their duty to uphold the Constitution and faithfully execute the laws on its head. Instead of defending the right of Harold Rice to vote in a state election regardless of his skin color, the Justice Department is defending Hawaii's right to make race a bona fide voting qualification.

The Justice Department claims that Hawaii isn't discriminating against anyone but merely enacting legislation "on behalf of indigenous people with whom it has established a trust responsibility." But the facts suggest otherwise.

The first-known contact between the Polynesian people of Hawaii and Europeans came in 1778, when Capt. James Cook first landed on the islands. Hawaii became a U.S. possession in 1898, following the overthrow of the hereditary monarchy that ruled the islands. The 1.8 million acres of land previously owned by the crown were ceded to the U.S. government at that time, and set aside in trust to "be used solely for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands for educational and other purposes."

When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the U.S. ceded back the lands to the new state to be used for any of five general purposes, including the betterment of the conditions of indigenous Hawaiians. For almost 20 years, the funds generated by the public land trust were administered to benefit all Hawaiians, regardless of race, with most money used to support public education.

But in 1978, the Hawaii state constitution was amended to provide assistance from these funds to only two groups of people defined solely by their racial ancestry. The Justice Department rationalizes that since only certain Hawaiians can benefit from these funds, those same people should be the only ones to choose trustees to administer the funds.

Imagine if this rationale were applied to other election contexts. Should voting in school-board elections be restricted to persons with children enrolled in public schools? Should renters be prohibited from voting to decide property-tax issues, or English speakers denied a say on bilingual education policy?

It's time the Clinton administration stopped trying to divide people by race. Let's hope that's the message the Supreme Court will deliver when it takes up this case this fall.

Linda Chavez Archives


©1999, Creators Syndicate