UPDATED 7/20/11 12:01 a.m.

Perhaps Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s favorite statement is that Hawaii’s diversity defines rather than divides us as a people.

Speaking at a “Justice Reinvestment” conference June 30 at Ala Moana Hotel, the governor ventured to say, “We find ourselves in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the most diverse population … uh, probably on the face of the Earth constituting our body politic, constituting what is in fact today Hawaii Nei.”

Is the governor correct?

To answer that question, let’s focus on racial and ethnic diversity rather than other categories like class or religion.

In that regard, Hawaii is quite diverse, according to the 2010 census: 38.6 percent Asian, 24.7 percent white, 10 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 8.9 percent Hispanic or Latino and 1.6 percent black.

Given that the nation as a whole is 72.4 percent white, Hawaii is obviously more diverse than the country as a whole. Nearly one-fourth (23.6 percent) of people in Hawaii say they belong to two races.

But, how do you define “diverse”? Here it gets tricky.

California, for example — which had the largest minority population in 2010 (read: non-whites) — has proportionally twice as many white people as Hawaii (57.6 percent) and far fewer Asians and Hawaiians, but also far more blacks (6.2 percent) and Latinos (37.6 percent).

New York, which had the third-largest minority population last year (Texas was second), is 65.7 percent white but has a black population of 15.9 percent and a Latino population of 17.6 percent.

Meanwhile, how do you define “Asian” or “Latino”?

For example, California has proportionally more Vietnamese compared with Hawaii, while New York has four times as many Puerto Ricans. And the Aloha State has only a fraction (0.2 percent) of Asian Indians compared with the Empire State and the Golden State.

And, the 2010 census has yet to break down the numbers — as it did in 2000 — for groups such as Haitians, Jamaicans, Cape Verdeans, Nigerians, Subsaharan Sudanese, Slovaks, Romanians, Macedonians, Iranians, Cypriots, Basques, Croatians and others.

Ten years ago, for example, the Census reported that Croatians made up 0.1 percent of the population in both New York and California, but 0.0 percent here. Although the Census counted 556 Croatians living here, it statistically turned out to be zero.

Of course, this only covers the United States. And the governor was talking about the entire globe.

What do you think? Was he right?

UPDATE

Civil Beat checked with two mainland authorities who also have familiarity with Hawaii’s cultural milieu.

Their take: The governor is probably correct, although both cautioned that saying Hawaii is “the most diverse” population is much harder to prove than, say, “one of the most diverse.”

“There is certainly a lot of truth to it, however,” said Joel Kotkin, a Calif.-based urban historian and demographer. “It may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but probably not too much. Hawaii is a very unique place.”

Kotkin said a key indicator of diversity is intermarriage rates. Pointing to 2008 census data, he said Hawaii led the nation at 29.4 percent — nearly twice as high as the states with the next highest intermarriage ragte, Alaska, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Not coincidentally, all four states have sizable indigenous populations.

Kotkin said Latinos and Asians have “very high degrees” of intermarriage. Hawaii, of course, has large percentages of both.

“You want to see what America will look like in 10 years, go to California,” said Kotkin, a state where 13.4 percent of all marriages are of mixed race. “If you want to see what it will look like in 30 years, look at Hawaii.”

Kotkin did observe that Hawaii’s diversity is limited in some ways.

“You have a very small black population, and probably less diversity among whites,” he said. “There are Armenians, Russians, Israelis in my neighborhood (Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley area), a lot of people from Europe. But, I would say racially speaking, I think it is certainly hard to find someplace more diverse than Hawaii.”

Thomas Tseng, principal and co-founder of New American Dimensions, a multicultural marketing and research group in L.A., agrees that there’s a good argument for saying Hawaii is the most racially diverse. But it also depends on how diversity is defined.

“Miami, for example, probably has the most diverse Hispanic population,” he said. “New York and Los Angeles also have a certain type of diversity.”

As for the planet, Tseng said a country like India has tremendous diversity of language and dialect and tribal dialects.

“But, most of us look at race and ethnicity, and we are starting to look at things like mixed-heritage background,” he said. “So, by those measures there is nowhere in the country like Hawaii. California might be approaching that, but it still has a ways to go.”

Michael Levine contributed to this report.

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