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The State of Aloha

A bill got through the U.S. House of Representatives this month that, if passed into law, could change this county for years — possibly decades. It starts with the flag. Old Glory will have to be amended to include an additional star.

The House bill shrinks our country’s capital to the United States Capitol, the White House and some other federal buildings. The rest of what we currently refer to as the District of Columbia would become a brand-new state.

The District of Columbia would be rechristened the Douglass Commonwealth in honor of Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery, escaped and became a 19th-century advocate for Black power.

Admittedly, the Douglass Commonwealth would be a small state. There are approximately 700,000 people living within its small, straight borders lodged between Maryland and Virginia on the Potomac River. But that would not make it the smallest.

Besides, population is not a good measure of influence when it comes to politics. Take, for example, the states with the smallest populations in the union right now: Vermont and Wyoming (D.C. has more people and would make it the 49th least populated state).

These states are represented by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an admitted socialist who has pushed the Democratic Party to a more progressive agenda and Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming’s powerful and stalwart Republican who appears to be struggling against the right-wing factions within her own party.

This is the second time the House has passed a statehood bill for the folks living in the District of Columbia. It is part of a long campaign that has been grinding along for decades. Statehood proponents point out that the people of D.C. are overseen by the federal government, taxed and yet have no voice in Congress. They cannot vote for a president who literally resides in their backyard.

Proponents also argue it is a civil rights problem. Thousands of people, most of whom are people of color, should not be disenfranchised within our nation’s capital.

The statehood issue for D.C. is reminiscent of Hawai’i’s story. After the unlawful overthrow, nominal republic and annexation, the territorial period in the islands was long and punctuated with several attempts to admit the islands as a state, most of which failed miserably.

Like D.C., Hawai’i did not (and still does not) have a white majority. The presence of Asians, Hawaiians and peoples of mixed ethnicity frightened American white supremacists.

When annexation was debated in Congress in 1898, a Democrat from Missouri rose in opposition not because the overthrow of a legitimate government was unlawful, but because he feared annexation would lead to statehood and nonwhite legislators.

Hawai’i’s population, he argued, was as “a lot of nondescript Asiatico-Polynesian ignoramuses.” “How,” he questioned sarcastically, “can we endure our shame when a Chinese senator from Hawaii, pigtail hanging down his back, with his pagan joss in his hand, shall rise from his curule chair and in pidgin English proceed to chop logic with” his colleagues?

Bills for Hawai’i statehood languished in Congress for decades. While the opponents of statehood came from the segregationist South, their arguments were less blatantly racist than the days of 1898. First, there was the notion that Hawai’i wasn’t “ready” to have direct democracy. Then there was the claim that militant labor unions were turning the islands into a communist paradise. These arguments were really just excuses to stop local people from being fully franchised into American-style democracy.

The congressional logjam broke in the late 1950s when John A. Burns, our nonvoting delegate, made a deal with one of the masters of the Senate, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson proposed the admission of Alaska first, then Hawai’i. At the time it was seen as a big gamble. Would the Senate turn on Hawai’i once Alaska — a territory less developed, with less people and arguably less “ready” for statehood than Hawai’i — was admitted as the 49th state?

Hawaiian statehood cleared the House in the next session and this time, Johnson delivered. In the Senate, only the white supremacists from the South opposed. They were outnumbered 76 to 15.

In 1959, Hawai’i became the first state to have a nonwhite majority. Johnson went on to become president and Burns the governor of Hawai’i three times. The Missouri Democrat’s speech at the turn of the century also proved to be prophetic. Hawai’i elected Hiram Fong to the Senate, making him the first Chinese American senator in history. Others from Hawai’i followed, like Daniel Inouye, Patsy T. Mink, Daniel Akaka and Pat Saiki.

Now we have a bill seeking admission of the second state with a nonwhite majority clearing the House and is in the Senate, where a few are already lining up excuses to vote it down. Will we have another 1959? Only time will tell.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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