Cynthia Oi
Under the Sun
Cynthia Oi

Legality, justice aren’t
necessarily the same

SOMEWHERE in the islands, a teenager awaits the start of the school year with far more on his mind than new clothes and gear, books, classroom assignments and how much homework teachers will unload.

He is "John Doe," the student around whom the legal storm of the challenge of Kamehameha Schools' admission policy swirls.

John Doe has attended public schools and will be a senior. Other than that, little is known about him, his identity kept secret because he and his mother are afraid of retaliation and intimidation, his attorney says.

But his name is secondary to what he stands for, an instrument by which activist lawyers and others seek to right what they behold as a wrong -- the exclusion of non-Hawaiian children as beneficiaries of the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop.

The federal court ruling last week that Kamehameha's policy violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866 unleashed emotional responses from Hawaiians and their supporters that should not have been unexpected.

The institution represents opportunities for education, for a continuation of a culture that at one time had faltered and, above all, hope, a precious commodity for people who had seen themselves at the bottom of every aspect of modern society.

Legality often treads a path divergent from righteousness.

Many people in Hawaii have acknowledged the difference, recognized that Hawaiians in days past had a sense of their worth and that their loss wasn't singular, but a deprivation for all who valued the influence of their traditions. They are given an advantage for an education because they face greater disadvantage and their advantage does not necessarily rob others.

Though Kamehameha has yet to spread its favor to all Hawaiians, and had strayed far from its mission until recent years when it expelled corrupt trustees, it has been striving to extend benefits beyond its campuses.

But this is America, where the notion of equality is solidified in law even as it is eroded by the fluidity of power, wealth and human imperfection, where the ideal of a level field slopes in reality toward the strongest.

Kamehameha's $6 billion in assets make the trust a target for legal exploitation. Its admission policy discriminates and its rationale for discrimination is unacceptable to those unsympathetic or uncaring of the cause. The policy may be unlawful, but it isn't wrong; it is not without moral foundation.

Where Kamehameha will now head is unclear. There are many uncertainties, their resolutions dependent on further court rulings and the political whims of Congress, whose members are disposed to trade off doing the right thing for personal interests or for ideological obedience.

Earlier this week, the court rejected John Doe's request to enroll in the school while his case winds its way through appeals and the pace of the legal system practically guarantees he won't set foot on Kamehameha's campuses in time for his senior year.

John Doe, like every young person, should be able to get the kind of high-quality education Kamehameha offers. Whether he is more or less deserving than a child who is Hawaiian isn't the issue. Righting a wrong is.

Princess Pauahi foresaw that the changes that would be brought to Hawaii would put her people and their culture at risk, so she gave them what she thought would best help them, a chance to step up through learning, to gain the knowledge, skills and abilities to survive. It is her will. It discriminates and is deemed illegal, unjust. However, diminishing her endowment to Hawaiians, small as their numbers may be, would be a greater injustice.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: coi@starbulletin.com.

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