The census data on Hawaii’s Native Hawaiians leaves a lot to be desired, a local scholar and community activist say.
U.S. Census Bureau reports — including the decennial census and more-frequent American Community Surveys — are flawed, they say, because they overreport the number of full Native Hawaiians and don’t provide enough detail on Native Hawaiians who are of mixed-ethnicity.
“The census inflates the number of…Hawaiians of only Hawaiian ancestry, suppresses the statistics on the ancestrally and ethnically diverse nature of Hawaiians and does not provide detailed data on the various ethnic mixes, such as Chinese-Hawaiian, Filipino-Hawaiian, Caucasian-Hawaiian,” said Hamilton McCubbin, former professor and Director of Research and Evaluation at UH-Manoa’s School of Social Work.
The latest census count shows during the last 10 years, the population of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii has grown by 21 percent to a total of 289,970 people.
On the one hand, some say inflated numbers give the Native Hawaiian community more political leverage, showcasing its need for continued federal funding for programs such as Hawaiian Home Lands and the Native Hawaiian Education Act.
But gaps in the data about ethnic mixes among Native Hawaiians could also thwart such social programs from achieving their goals and undermine targeted health care, says McCubbin, who says he’s one-fourth Native Hawaiian.
Census critics point to the bureau’s most recent American Community Survey (ACS). It shows that among those in Hawaii who self-identify as “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander,” 25 percent say they are only Native Hawaiian.
Community members say the percentage is much lower — closer to 2 percent, McCubbin says.
“Most people will agree that the majority of Native Hawaiians are mixed and that the [number] reported in the census is not accurate,” said McCubbin.
Indeed, Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, chair of the Hawaiian Affairs senate committee, says the “number of full Native Hawaiians is really dwindling.”
Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census’s Racial Statistics branch, emphasizes that the ACS — an ongoing survey whose results are released annually — is not the same as the census that comes out every 10 years.
It reports that out of all Hawaii residents who say they are at least part Native Hawaiian, 80,337, or 28 percent, self-identify as only Native Hawaiian.
But Momi Imaikalani Fernandez, who says she is half Native Hawaiian and collaborates with the Census Bureau to improve Native Hawaiian data collection through its Census Information Center (CIC) program, estimates that only 5,000 residents are full Native Hawaiian.
Fernandez directs Papa Ola Lokahi, an island-wide nonprofit that collects and distributes data on Native Hawaiian health, including providing statistics to develop programs and funding proposals for federal programs like Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems.
McCubbin says the census oversimplifies respondents’ racial characteristics.
According to McCubbin, the census should ask for and release data on blood quantum — for instance, one-fourth Chinese, one-fourth Native Hawaiian and one-half Filipino — in order to get a clearer idea of how different ethnic mixes produce certain social, economic and health profiles.
“We can’t see whether [an individual is] predominately predominately Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, so forth — we only know they’re mixed and they have that combination,” said McCubbin. “We can’t say unequivocally what specific kinds of mixes will produce different results.”
Complaints like his are not uncommon, Jones says.
Many minority populations highlight “that they have diversity within their particular groups,” said Jones. “And it’s certainly part of the census’s efforts to reflect the current populations and then share that with the rest of the [wider] population.”
But when it comes to specific racial breakdowns, Jones says that’s not decennial census territory.
Breaking down ethnic composition also introduces a host of problems that comes with self-identification — particularly for the Native Hawaiian community, says Nolan Malone, a former demographic analyst at the Census Bureau.
“It’s a very sensitive subject for many people for whom family records were destroyed, from whom access to homelands have been denied…,” he said. “It’s a very personal issue and I would not advocate for intruding upon people’s lives with such questions.”
The Census Bureau distributes data that reflects how respondents self-identify and is thus liable to individual biases, which some say is an inevitable limitation in any population survey.
“Self-reported race on surveys and censuses will always be subject to a certain amount of error,” said Malone, the former demographic analyst at the Census Bureau. “When it comes to assessing race, there really isn’t any better method for collecting those data other than self-report: blood tests are not feasible, birth certificates are subject to the same types of reporting error and having an interviewer ascribe race and ethnicity based on phenotype — as it has been done in the past — introduces even greater error.”
Indeed, the bureau acknowledges that making definitive conclusions about race has its drawbacks, noting on its website, “The race categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country, and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”
According to McCubbin, Fernandez and Galuteria, many individuals who are only part Native Hawaiian purposefully list that they are Native Hawaiian only. Cultural motives also play a role.
“People self-identify as only Native Hawaiian because that’s their culture that they most identify with,” said Fernandez. “Native Hawaiian is an identity. We’re tying ourselves to this ‘aina, we’re tying ourselves to our ancestors, we’re tying ourselves to language and to customs and to everything that makes us Hawaiian.”
However, what McCubbin says is problematic, for one, is that the inflated figure detracts from data on Native Hawaiians who are more than one ethnicity.
“It’s fine to allow self-identification to play a part for political reasons,” said McCubbin. “But when it comes to health, then I have difficulty with that…When we start attributing high rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and we target funds to address those at-risk populations that ethnic mix can make a significant difference on what data we’re really reporting. If you’re predominantly Japanese, Chinese, there are certain genetic factors and health risks that go with that combination. And right now the way that Hawaiian data are being compiled for health, if you’re full Hawaiian, that means it’s the Hawaiians that have these kinds of health risks, and that may not be the case – it may the combination of different ethnic mixes. So while I credit the creativity of the Hawaiians to identify themselves for personal gain or a sense of satisfaction, I would draw the line when it comes to real scientific issues where the outcomes could vary depending on your ethnic mix.”
Census data is “eminently important” in public policy plans, according to Galuteria.
And while more numbers mean more federal funding, they also result in the undercounting of the Native Hawaiians who are mixed-ethnicity, which McCubbin and Fernandez say could significantly reduce the impact of public policy decisions.
“Diversity in genetic mix is related to diversity in health outcomes…health scientists are dependent on a mono-ethnic profile of Hawaiians, which is not likely to be accurate, and importantly, may lead to different policies and interventions,” McCubbin said.
Starting with the 2000 census, respondents had the option of checking more than one box under the race category. If an individual’s race wasn’t among one of the 12 explicit classifications — which include White, Black, American Indian, several Asian subcategories, Native Hawaiian, Samoan and Guamanian — he or she could handwrite it in the space provided.
Jones, with the census, notes that more-detailed data derived from the 2010 census is available online in order to “help data users to help understand the diversity of total population and diversity within particular groups.” The bureau provides population counts on specific groups, such as Samoan, Tongan, Guamanian and Fijian.
But the detailed tabulations aren’t widely distributed, and the web application used to access the data is complex.
In the reports that are widely distributed and easily accessible, the census bureau collapses all the individual races listed in the questionnaire into five categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander and Some other race.
Although the bureau does provide access to detailed data sets that include each of the 57 possible specified racial combinations, classifications don’t get much more specific than those five categories in the briefs that the general public typically sees.
Additionally, the census typically aggregates data on Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders under one category in its basic reports.
“We need to be counting [Pacific Islanders] specifically because of their unique health issues,” particularly those that can be traced directly to nuclear radiation around the Micronesian region, said Fernandez.
Fernandez has previously collaborated with the National Library of Medicine on various projects, including the Native Hawaiian Health Equity Atlas.
Combining Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders into one category, she says, undermines health care targeted towards other Pacific Islanders. Samoans, for example, have higher rates of diabetes at earlier ages than do Native Hawaiians, according to Fernandez.
All in all, Fernandez says that the Census Bureau is not to blame for the data flaws. Instead, she suggests that it allow local agencies to direct Native Hawaiian data collection that more accurately and appropriately reflects their population.
“As a Native Hawaiian, I believe it is my kuleana, my responsibility, to come up with the data to tell our story specifically,” said Fernandez. “If my story were told by someone from the U.S. Census there’d be no connection to it, it’s not their reality. If we can better influence the way that they gather data or the necessity in including all race categories, disaggregated race and ethnic groupings, I’m happy. But we’re still working on that.”
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