Hawaii is the only state that could have produced a President of African ancestry in this generation.
Because Hawaii is the only state where an American kid Barak Obama’s age with a black father could have grown up looking and being treated like a member of the ethnic mainstream. In Honolulu, the fact that Obama looked sort of Puerto Rican meant that he was mainstream at a time when Puerto Rican-looking kids on the mainland were regarded as inferior to white kids.
Race is different in Hawaii because of the old sugar plantations. The sugar industry was started in the 1840’s by the Hawaii-born children of New England missionaries who saw a way to make a lot of money if only they could find workers to do the hot, heavy work of growing sugar cane. Native Hawaiians didn’t want these jobs and while the would-be sugar magnates could have bought black slaves, these children of missionaries were morally opposed to slavery. They were, however, racist enough not to want black people in Hawaii.
So they recruited contract laborers from every part of the world where cheap labor was available and not black. Most Hawaiian sugar plantation workers came as contract laborers from Asia, the big numbers were from China, Japan, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Korea, with smaller groups from Puerto Rico, Portugal, Spain, Norway, Germany and Russia.
Some workers returned home at the end of their contracts, more stayed, brought their families over, and built new lives, becoming the parents and grandparents of Hawaiians. Café au lait was the color of normal in Hawaii decades before it was on the mainland.
The Hawaii of Obama’s childhood was a place where economic and political dominion by a white elite was rapidly receding. Men Hawaiians called local boys, the Hawaii-born descendants of the plantation workers, had built businesses, made fortunes, fought in the Second World War, and gone to college. In post-War Hawaii, they were rising to the top in every field.
The old rules under which white girls married white boys and Chinese girls married Chinese boys rapidly broke down, and it was difficult to know at a glance whose ancestors had come from where. It was not that people had forgotten where their grandparents had immigrated from or were ashamed of it, it was just that it didn’t much matter. Being a local boy did.
But on this island of café au lait kids with ancestors from just about everywhere the number of people with ancestors from Africa was tiny. This made Hawaii the only state in the nation where a baby born in 1961 with a black father could have grown up without having that fact be the single most significant aspect of his identity.
This is not to say that Obama had an easy time growing up. Being a child of divorced and absent parents is tough, and Obama youthful troubles were compounded by the fact that he was so conspicuously different from the other kids at school. The difference was that he was a scholarship boy.
Obama attended Punahou, the island’s most elite private school. But he was the child of family with no money and he who lived with his grandparents in a modest rented apartment. One of the other kids’ parents probably owned the apartment building, because Punahou was the school where the families who owned the plantations, the banks and everything else in Hawaii sent their children. In a small city like Honolulu, that enormous social gap may have loomed larger than race, large enough to make him unlikely to develop Bill Clinton’s bonhomie.
Race was there, of course. But while the young Obama had to grapple with the fact that the father he hardly knew was black, he did not have race thrust upon him every time he walked into a store or got on a bus. He didn’t look different than a kid with one Puerto Rican and one native Hawaiian parent might look. He looked as he might have had his name been Louis Ortiz.
Twenty-first century America is filled with café au lait young people who don’t want to be defined by little boxes that must be checked “black” or “white”. But when Obama was growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s, Hawaii was unique. And that unique ethnic history did not spare Obama all racist scorn, but it did spare the young Obama the casual, inescapable racism that white Americans inflict on black Americans with a glance. That is why he was able to inspire voters with confidence that he would have the interests of all Americans at heart as President.
Hawaii is not paradise. There is racism and ethnic tension, but Hawaii did arrive ahead of the rest of America at a point where the amount of melanin in your skin doesn’t matter very much or very often.
Because he grew up in Hawaii, Obama came of age relatively unscathed by the American mental habit of automatically categorizing every human as either black or white, and treating them differently. And that is something that no one his age who grew up on the mainland can claim.
Below, America’s café au lait generation: