Racial tensions are simmering in Hawaii's melting pot
A violent road-rage altercation between Native Hawaiians and a white couple near Pearl Harbor two weeks ago is provoking questions about whether Hawaii's harmonious "aloha" spirit is real or just a greeting for tourists.
The Feb. 19 attack, in which a Hawaiian father and son were arrested and charged with beating a soldier and his wife unconscious, was unusual here for its brutality. It sparked a public debate over race relations that is filling blogs and newspaper websites with impassioned comments along stark ethnic lines.
These divisive exchanges come as the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress are being asked to tackle another inflammatory racial issue in a state where no race is a majority: special benefits for Native Hawaiians, ranging from preference at an elite private school to free houses on government land. One side says the long-established perks compensate Hawaiians for past wrongs and preserve their valuable culture for the islands. The other side says the benefits discriminate against other racial groups.
The current controversies are exposing racial tensions below the surface of a tropical paradise that Gov. Linda Lingle says is "a model for the world" in diversity and peaceful integration. Simmering divisions pit Hawaiians against other groups, and "locals" of all races against newcomers including immigrants and military members.
At issue now is whether Hawaii will acknowledge and overcome these threats to its friendly reputation.
Last month's road-rage incident began when an SUV driven by Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Dussell, 26, who has served two tours in Iraq, struck the parked car of Gerald Paakaula, 44, at a shopping center, according to a police affidavit filed in court. Paakaula and his 16-year-old son allegedly assaulted Dussell and his wife, Dawn, 23.
The teenager allegedly shouted an obscenity along with the Hawaiian term for a white person, haole (pronounced "howl-ee"), while attacking the soldier.
The court document says the father, a truck driver, picked up the woman and slammed her to the asphalt. The teenager allegedly kicked the husband's face as he convulsed on the ground from a punch to the throat. The couple suffered broken noses, facial fractures and concussions.
In another incident Jan. 27, nine white campers in a beach park on the Big Island of Hawaii were beaten by men in their 20s who told the campers to leave the island, the police report says. Hawaii County Police Maj. John Dawrs describes the assailants as "Pacific Islanders."
Racial troubles in the islands usually don't get much public discussion. In a tourism-dependent state, talk about tensions is "like news about shark attacks," says Jon Van Dyke, a University of Hawaii law professor. "People are afraid they might lose customers."
Now, people are speaking out. Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle says he's getting public pressure to add a "hate crime" charge to the felony assault charge against Paakaula. The maximum sentence for assault is five years, but that would double to 10 years if the defendant is convicted of a hate crime. Carlisle says this case doesn't fit Hawaii's hate-crime law requiring intentional "selection" of a victim because of ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
Hawaii recorded six hate crimes last year, up from one or two in each previous year since recordkeeping began in 2003, according to the state.
"There is a notion that we have this kind of rainbow society and we all get along really swell," says Jon Matsuoka, dean of the university's School of Social Work. "The reality is that there are racial tensions. They are deep-seated and historical, and that history didn't abruptly stop."
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