Connecting Past to Present: Confronting Environmental Racism and Social Injustice in Hawaii

“Hawaii is not a project. It’s our home and we love our home.”

This statement made by renowned storyteller and CEO of the Oahu Economic Development Board, Pono Shim, sums up the stewardship mentality deeply rooted in the cultural ideals of Native Hawaiians and the Kama’aina (Hawaii residents). Self-accountability, commonly referred to as one’s kuleana, drives the stewardship mentality of those who call Hawaii home. A prominent sentiment repeated to me throughout my upbringing in the small town of Hawi, was “malama ka ‘aina,” which means to care for the land so it supports life for multiple generations. To local communities, being stewards of the land is not about “fixing a problem,” it’s about healing and growing together to support an ever-strengthening community. 

A History of Environmental Racism

Although this deep bond with the land has largely prevailed, its legacy was threatened by British explorer Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaii in 1778 and the changes in natural resource management and culture that ensued.

Prior to Cook disembarking on the islands and the influx of British and American entrepreneurs that followed, Hawaiians farmed for sustenance. Their connection with their agricultural practices was relational and rooted in gratitude. They consumed what they needed and shared the rest with other community members. Then, natural resources were not marketable goods. 

When British and American entrepreneurs entered Hawaii, they viewed sandalwood and sugarcane, specifically, as opportunities to grow an economy. As trade networks centered on these crops were established abroad, the air around agriculture became increasingly transactional and went against the traditional Hawaiian principles of stewardship and sustainable consumption. 

The intensity of the destruction of lands during this time hit me vividly during a conversation I had with my mentor Mahina Patterson of the Kohala Center in Waimea. We were hiking through Pu’u O ‘Umi forest reserve, and I made a comment about the unnatural bleakness of the pasture lands surrounding the lush forest reserve. She explained that the land looked this way because of the sandalwood trade in the early 1800s. She described that traders were so hyperfocused on extracting and profiting from sandalwood that they’d burn down entire forests — leaving barren pastures like the ones surrounding us — just to locate sandalwood by its distinctive aroma. 

This destructive practice reflects the pervasive environmental racism — the disproportionate negative impact of environmental hazards on people of color historically and currently experienced by Native Hawaiians and other marginalized communities across the country. 

Unique to many indigenous-identifying communities, the most stark hazards of environmentally racist practices come in the form of socio-cultural hazards. Because Native Hawaiians have a cultural identity deeply rooted in their connection with the land, degradation of such land into a “marketable product” is blatant disrespect to an entire culture and discrimination against its people. 

Beyond the sandalwood trade, the establishment of sugarcane plantations on the islands — run by wealthy businessmen from imperial countries and the cheap labor of immigrants from vulnerable populations of color (Japanese, Chinese, and Portugeuse)  — demonstrated exploitative relationships between workers and plantation owners founded on who maintained agency over the land. Because these plantation owners used agriculture as a means to maintain agency over communities of color that relied on their jobs for sustenance, a power dynamic emerged, revealing early environmentally racist undertones.

Current Displacement of Marginalized Communities 

With Western colonization of the Hawaiian people also came physical displacement of their communities, which still remains an issue today. The population of Wai’anae on Oahu island is largely comprised of Native Hawaiians and is non-coincidentally home to the highest rates of asthma and cancer in the state due to their close proximity to Oahu’s landfills and the Kahe power plant, which is a major source of polluting emissions.

On the Big Island of Hawaii, certain areas of the city of Hilo and the district of Puna are home to many who identify as native Hawaiian and other marginalized populations. These are also the areas on Hawaii island with populations that experience the most negative health (mainly respiratory) impacts due to their close proximities to the volcanoes that emit vog (a respiratory irritant known to induce asthma). Further, those who live along the coastlines in Hilo are also especially vulnerable to property damage due to their placement in flood and tsunami zones. 

This theme of native and marginalized population displacement into natural-disaster-prone areas and medically hazardous zones extends to the residents of around 600 homes in the district of Puna that were destroyed due to the Kilauea lava flow that occured in 2018. Not to mention, those in surrounding areas who were exposed to toxic levels of noxious emissions were also largely communities of color. 

The consistent displacement of these marginalized communities is not at all by accident. It is a reflection of the systemic racism faced by Native Hawaiians and other marginalized communities throughout the state. 

Indigenous Communities Protest Injustices

This pattern is something that was very recently brought to light during the Kahuku Wind Farm protests that took place in late 2019, when turbines were proposed to be built extremely close to residential and school areas primarily consisting of Native Hawaiian communities. 

According to opponents of the proposed wind farm in Kahuku on a petition, the wind farm would threaten the Hawaiian Hoary bat and other endangered native species; negatively affect students and disrupt residents due to the noise pollution and close proximity to Kahuku Elementary School (.36 mi) and community homes (.29 mi); and lead to an estimated 10-25% reduction of Kahuku property values in an already unforgiving housing market. Similar considerations of noise and sight pollution and reductions in property value are at the center of arguments against large-scale wind farm projects in more affluent areas.

When discussing the Kahuku protests and potential project location alternatives, University of Hawaii’s Director of Sustainability Initiatives Matthew K Lynch explained, “You kinda see this pattern play out. Why are we not building massive wind farms in the back of Ka’a’awa Valley? Well, because of more affluent communities that can actually mobilize and prevent that sort of thing from happening.”

In a similar vein, environmental racism in Hawaii has largely been revealed by peaceful protesting efforts against the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) at Mauna Kea that began in 2014. 

The TMT would be the first telescope of its size and capacity in the Northern hemisphere, allowing it to grant astronomers access to currently unreachable areas of the sky. Proponents of the TMT claim Mauna Kea to be an ideal location for the proposed telescope due to the dry, ideal climate and majority of clear viewing nights there.

Chile, which boasts local support of the TMT’s construction and similar ideal climatic conditions, has been viewed as a good alternative site. 

To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea carries significant ancestral cultural value and is considered the most sacred mountain of the Hawaii islands. This controversy sparked protests that began in 2014 and marked the split between many Native Hawaiians and cultural groups, as well as members of the scientific community who did not understand the culturally desecrative nature of the TMT. 

Connecting recent protesting events, Lynch expressed, “I see things like Mauna Kea, like the TMT, the Kahuku protests: these are indicators of process failures. There are voices in our community that do not feel that they have been heard authentically.” Native Hawaiian and other marginalized communities are these voices.

Connection Between Environmental Racism and BLM

Although Hawaii is physically removed from the rest of the world, just as protestors of the TMT elicited aid from fellow advocates from the continental U.S. and around the globe, social justice advocates in Hawaii have demonstrated their support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that recently sparked 4,000 miles away in Minneapolis. 

In discussing the connection between environmental racism and the current BLM movement, Lynch explained, “Connecting police brutality, mass incarceration, separation of self, and climate: it’s often misunderstood that the root cause of the climate crisis is carbon emissions. That’s not the root cause.”

He explained that the cause of emissions is an underlying paradigm based on extraction and never ending growth, which he added, can only happen if one sees themself as separate from nature. Thus, he argues that the root cause of environmental racism is seeing ourselves as apart from the natural world and each other. 

Things like the TMT protests are important in his eyes, because he explains “they spark a fundamental shift back to what we all once knew: we are not separate and apart from the natural world, we are descended from the natural world.” This connective principle directly applies to interactions between people in the face of the BLM movement as well. 

Similarly, Hawaii resident and recent graduate of Harvard College Yuki Zbytovsky described “When George Floyd and too many other Black people in America uttered the words ‘I can’t breathe’, it is also a reflection of the acute environmental disadvantages Black people face in America.”

She explained that vast amounts of research have consistently proven that people of color experience disproportionate exposure to pollutants that degrade both air and water quality, with Black populations shouldering most of that burden. 

She added “Like too many other issues in the United States, such as police brutality, environmental issues consistently disproportionately affect Black communities. To achieve climate and environmental justice, every environmentalist must be anti-racist.” 

Experiences of Racism in Hawaii Tied to BLM Awareness

Because the BLM movement is largely concentrated in metropolitan areas of the continental U.S., more isolated populations (like Hawaii’s) are often left out of the conversation. In Hawaii, this is especially so, as it is commonly viewed as a culturally inclusive paradise and a melting pot of ideologies. However, although Hawaii carries a diverse reputation and nearly a quarter of its population of 1.4 million is mixed-race, racist cultures maintain a pervasive presence. 

Black communities, for example, only make up 3% of Hawaii’s population, and yet, they have accounted for 30% of race-related employment discrimination complaints in the most recent decade.

Additional targets of racism in Hawaii are immigrants from Micronesia. Because of their ability to enter the U.S. without a visa and lack of economic opportunities back home, increasing numbers of Micronesians have been migrating to Hawaii in recent years to build better lives. Many of these migrants are, unfortunately, exploited by job recruiters for cheap labor due to the migrants’ lack of education and English skills. Even further, they face discrimination from landlords in an already unforgiving housing market. 

Walking down the sidewalks, it’s common to hear derogatory comments targeting Micronesian communities. A friend of mine on Oahu island, who has asked to remain anonymous, revealed the following about their experiences: “I’m not Asian or other-race-passing, so I experience the [racial] taunts on a daily basis, even at work. I remember someone writing on my car window one time in sharpie to ‘go to hell you dirty hood rat Micronesian’. I felt less human after that.”

This friend’s experience is not an isolated event. It reflects the common experiences of many marginalized communities in Hawaii and the mainland U.S. 

When asked about her perception on the perpetuation of racism in Hawaii, Zbytovsky elaborated that one way locals and other Hawaii residents perpetuate racism against African Americans is by “failing to ‘unlearn’ internalized white supremacy — the same white supremacy that was used to colonize Hawai’i.”

She added that Hawaii is demographically one of the most diverse places in the nation, but that this very fact “puts Hawaii residents at risk for thinking that they have not internalized the same racism that is present in the rest of the country.”

As a result, she described, “we are at risk for not feeling a pressing need to read, listen, and learn […] this unawareness is the very reason we should push to educate ourselves and one another as much as possible.” 

Adding onto Zbytovsky’s statement, from his perspective, Lynch described that  “You see it [racism] most viscerally when you just look at statistics of disparities in health outcomes for Native Hawaiians and other minority groups.”

He added that contemporary island society in Hawaii is still massively shaped by the plantation legacies, which is reflected in the same eight families that engineered the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in the late 1890s still maintaining control over large quantities of land and money that were extracted from Hawaii’s Indigenous People. 

When asked about racism in a more business-related context, Lynch stated “racism is largely reflected in executive and managerial structures. […] In terms of workplace diversity, the data on disparities and inequities are really revealing.” 

He described that if one takes a look at statistics on diversity of the student body and compares them to the diversity of leadership at the University of Hawaii, for example, “you find that you have a very distinct ruling class that is kinda reflective of White supremacy values. The leadership doesn’t match the communities that we’re serving.” 

He believes that racism in Hawaii expresses itself in more nuanced ways than are typically seen throughout the U.S. and adds that he thinks “the ways racism are expressed here are more around who gets to decide and what values are driving those decisions.”

Collectively, the BLM movement has served as an opportunity for these experiences to be brought to light and into conversation both nationally, and locally, despite Hawaii’s physical isolation from concentrated efforts. 

As demonstrated by the numerous BLM protesting efforts spearheaded on the various islands of Hawaii, physical separation does not have to mean social separation and complacency. 

Much like the TMT and Kahuku protests demonstrated, the BLM movement is not about “person vs. person” aggressive action and perpetuating division. It’s about confronting injustice, finding unity in diversity, respecting and uplifting culture, and replacing ignorance and hate with awareness, empathy, and connection.

Featured Image: Angelique Kokal