Monday, October 4, 1999

Activist opposes
‘identity politics’

Racial politics 'keep us divided,'
says the head of L.A.
human relations

By Susan Kreifels


The presidential candidates will be saying what ethnic groups want to hear: how they support the issues important to Hispanic Americans, Chinese Americans, native Americans.

But longtime human-rights activist Joe Hicks calls such campaigning "shameless" and "pandering." Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, wants an end to what he calls "identity politics" -- racial and ethnic political groups.

Rather, Hicks, himself once an "ultra black-nationalist," wants Americans, and politicians, to support broad issues that are good for all -- better education and health care, affordable housing, decent-paying jobs.

"We've become a confederation of groups, not a nation of people," said Hicks, in Hawaii on a "listening tour" before he returns in February as a keynote speaker at the governor's conference on volunteerism.

Ethnic and racial politics "keep us divided rather than bring us together," said Hicks. "We're all seeking the same things."

Ethnic Americans here said, however, that such politics are still necessary to fight discrimination and build political clout, and a native Hawaiian said sovereignty was a separate issue from jobs or education.

"Natives want different things. We're arguing about land, and who controls that land," said Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. "How do you combat racism without identity politics?"

Janis Koh, president of the year-old Hawaii chapter of the Korean American Coalition, said working for ethnic political identity was "absolutely" important.

"We are Americans and at the same time we're identified by the color of our skins and ethnicity," Koh said. "We still have so many who don't speak English, who don't benefit. We're trying to reach them so they can understand the issues and make decisions."

Hicks will be a keynote speaker at the Year 2000 Governor's Conference on Volunteerism, four days that organizers hope will promote volunteer work in a way that "celebrates diversity while nurturing connections in all communities."

Dean Alegado, a professor of ethnic studies at UH-Manoa, called Hick's philosophy "an ideal goal" but not yet realistic.

"It's the old idea of the melting pot," Alegado said. "When you come here you leave your cultural baggage behind and you should strive to become American. Most immigrants would like to do that but they're trapped into certain kinds of jobs. The larger society attaches those identities that stay with them for a while."

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