Obama’s words hit home in Hawaii
Speaking at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy warned the assembled U.S. Conference of Mayors that America faced a looming summer of race riots.
Riots born not in one year of unequal housing, one winter of unjust laws, or spring of closed schools and opportunities denied, but the violence spawned by hundreds of years of denying that America is a land of unequal opportunity.
"Justice cannot wait for too many meetings. It cannot wait for the action of Congress or the courts. We face a moment of moral and constitutional crisis, and men of generosity and vision must make themselves heard in every section of this country," Kennedy said.
Now, almost 45 years later, Barack Obama, a man born in Honolulu, again raises the question and urges an answer.
"For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle ... or at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.'"
It was Kennedy's rhetoric and then Lyndon Baines Johnson's political skill that brought about the Civil Rights Act 40 years ago, but Obama's speech last week on race was the bravest, most clear-eyed discussion of race in America that voters have heard in decades.
Not President Bush, or Vice President Gore, or President Clinton could so intelligently examine the causes and suggest a solution to America's divided past as Obama did by urging that we move forward.
In Hawaii, we comfort ourselves with a reassuring dismissal of racism, saying we have "the aloha spirit." That may be, but we also have real problems.
Honolulu's Mayor Mufi Hannemann candidly says it would be naive to think of Hawaii "as devoid of prejudice and bias."
Hawaii's own prejudices might be more than we are willing to publicly accept. Hannemann, Harvard's first Samoan-American graduate, said in a recent interview that we are as fast to judge as we are to support.
"When there is a crime involving a Samoan or Polynesian, that is when all the progress and positive role models go way back. They will say, 'There they go again, they should ship them all back to Samoa,'" Hannemann says.
The pressure, Hannemann says, is on people of power in Hawaii who are minorities.
"We have to behave and perform well because all it takes is one slip-up and they will say they (Samoan-Americans) may be able to play football for you and take you to the Sugar Bowl, but when it comes to leading us, they can't do it."
As much as we have changed since the days of Kennedy's fears of a summer of riots, today with an African-American candidate for president and a Samoan mayor, we still need the empathy to see the need.