Editor’s Note: The writer is a graduate student in social work. He notes that part of his curriculum requires that he self-identify as a social work professional. He stresses, though, that he has not been licensed and is not yet a professional social worker in the State of Hawaii.

I’m a student at the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Part of what social workers do is educate. We give our clients the information they need to make informed choices that will lead to responsible and dignified self-determination. We also advocate for our clients’ rights.

When we feel the informed self-determination of our clients is at risk, we have an ethical obligation to speak up. I must do that now. Social workers have an obligation to broader society, but especially to its most vulnerable members who look to trusted authorities for guidance and information. At the moment, some trusted authorities in Hawaii are promulgating a counterfactual narrative that is proving to be detrimental to social cohesion.

This is the counterfactual narrative: Hawaii was not actually annexed in 1898, and the Kingdom of Hawaii is still in effect and illegally occupied. The upshot: Ethnic native Hawaiians are the only “legitimate” inhabitants of Hawaii, and so should be given more privilege in public discourse.


The Annexation Commission of 1893 organized by the Provisional Government of Hawaii for the purpose of negotiating an annexation treaty with the United States. Sitting from left to right: William Chauncey Wilder, Joseph Marsden, Lorrin A. Thurston, John Mott-Smith, and William Richards Castle. Standing: Charles L. Carter.

Hawaii State Archives via Wikimedia

A good example: A few months ago (and not for the first time), University of Hawaii law professor Williamson B.C. Chang asserted this in his testimony regarding the Thirty-Meter Telescope. His claim rests on the assertion that Hawaii was brought into the union through a Joint Resolution passed by a simple majority. He made a good case: It’s been widely accepted, even in academia. I recently had an assigned reading in a graduate course take as a given that Hawaii was illegally annexed. But at base, I believe that idea is mistaken.

You can find a lengthy and in-depth analysis here, but the gist is that none of the arguments that Hawaiian sovereignty advocates typically deploy are strong or probably valid. There are typically three strains of argument they rely on: 1) Congress has no power to annex territory by simple legislation; 2) there was no annexation treaty; and 3) the annexation violated international law, so therefore it was invalid and Hawaii maintains it sovereignty.

At best, the strongest argument that they can make about Congress’s power to annex property is that the U.S. Constitution is silent on that power, even though there are historical examples of Congress annexing territory by legislation. There are at least two instances when Congress allowed the federal government to annex territory.

In one instance, right after the Constitution was ratified, Congress annexed territory from North Carolina. Like Hawaii’s government, North Carolina asked for the federal government to annex territory and the federal government did so with no constitutional dispute that I could find.

The argument that there was no annexation treaty misses the math. Hawaii’s government, which controlled the territory and was recognized by the same states that recognized the Kingdom of Hawaii, agreed to the terms of the treaty. Similarly, the Senate voted by a two-thirds majority to annex Hawaii under the same terms that Hawaii agreed to be annexed. Those are the only conditions for a valid treaty: an agreement between the United States and a foreign state that the Senate ratifies by a two-thirds vote.

Both the United States government and the government in control of Hawaii (the Hawaiian government, for lack of a better term) agreed to the annexation in fact and in spirit, and both acted as if they were bound by the agreement. How the nations arrived at the end goal is of little concern, since formal requirements have changed over the 117 years since annexation.

The argument that there was no annexation treaty misses the math. Hawaii’s government, which controlled the territory and was recognized by the same states that recognized the Kingdom of Hawaii, agreed to the terms of the treaty.

When assessing the capacities of a complex system, social workers often apply the principle of equifinality. If a family can love and care for a child, does it really matter the composition and marital status? Is a “traditional” family better than a family with same-sex parents if they provide care, support, and love? Of course not. Likewise, if a sovereign nation’s government decided to join another sovereign nation, does it truly matter how that happened? I would say not.

I believe it is unethical for trusted authorities to leave out crucial details like the ones referenced in the addendum to construct simple, seductive narratives. It’s hard to make informed choices, yes, but it’s even harder to do so without self-determination.

I can see why certain figures would engage in this sort of magical thinking. They are tired of seeing oppressed minorities suffer through a system of structural injustices. I am, too. But I’m younger and perhaps more hopeful. I also have a strong commitment to intellectual honesty. That’s why I’m in graduate school doing the hard work to become a social worker.

I think, perhaps, these claims of illegal annexation are stand-ins for a hope Mr. Chang and like-minded people do not deem possible: social justice. They’ve lost faith in the system of the day, and think it unfixable. They live in a zero-sum world: If put-upon and historically marginalized and underrepresented peoples (including but not limited to the native Hawaiian people) want self-determination, they have to take it away from others.

But this isn’t true. In fact, it’s patently false. Only through accepting the need for and value of an egalitarian, truly pluralistic society can the promise of true self-determination be redeemed for the people of Hawaii — native and “settler” alike. As Eugene Debs said, “While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Social workers don’t wish houses into existence for their clients, nor do they wish away severe mental illness or chronic substance use. They also don’t enable their clients (in my case, broader society) to practice magical thinking and rely on wishes to solve their problem. We can’t just wish away an oppressive U.S. empire and expect a just and affirming oligarchy to arise in its place. The better approach is to work within reality to improve people’s lives now.

Bitter feelings of resentment over events that transpired more than a century ago will not improve anyone’s situation now. Rather, they risk alienating potential allies and diverting people’s attention from real problems that we can solve now.

Social workers do the real, hard work to make the world better. I’m proud of that profession, and have made a commitment to serve my clients through it. I resolve to tell them the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient. I wish Mr. Chang would, too.

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