Advocates for Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans in Hawaii say the president’s new plan to support their communities is an important step toward addressing longstanding inequities both locally and nationally.

President Joe Biden’s administration held a lengthy webinar Tuesday discussing the details of the national strategy focusing on improving data collection, addressing discrimination and expanding language access. Improving community outreach, diversifying the federal government and increasing funding to the communities are also top priorities.

Kuhio Lewis, who leads the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, noted that the president’s announcement fell on the 130th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

He thinks the national commitment toward addressing injustices facing the Native Hawaiian community is an important step toward eventually resolving claims to land among other longstanding issues.

Kuhio Lewis President and CEO of Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement speaks at the blessing of Hale Manako in Wahiawa.
Kuhio Lewis, who leads the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, says Biden’s new national strategy is a good step toward justice for Native Hawaiians. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“The fact that our land was taken, our culture was stripped away from us and our queen was imprisoned… that should be the basis of a conversation that has yet to occur of how America is going to address that injustice,” he said. “This allows us the ability to keep that conversation going because it’s not been addressed and it needs to be addressed.”

The president’s announcement included 32 agency-specific strategies to further the overall national strategy. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs executive director Sylvia Hussey said the agency plans to review the strategies with an eye toward their effects on Native Hawaiians.

Lewis was happy to see that the Department of Interior’s top goal was to standardize the use of the Hawaiian language internally and serve as a model for other federal agencies.

“I love that it’s even on their radar,” he said, noting that at one point the Hawaiian language was banned and nearly lost, and revitalizing the language isn’t easy. “It helps solidify our place and our culture at the highest level of government.”

He said he’s glad there’s a federal spotlight on issues important to the Native Hawaiian community and was happy to see how the Biden administration has incorporated Native Hawaiian leaders into key positions, such as Krystal Kaʻai, who is leading the White House Initiative to advance equity, justice and opportunity for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

“There’s actual inclusion that’s occurring,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to work with the federal government to better inform decision-makers.”

Data Informing Policy

One person from Hawaii who is helping to shape policies is Nani Coloretti. She is deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, which — among its other responsibilities — issues recommendations on how federal agencies should collect data. When she was confirmed in March, Coloretti was the highest ranking Filipino-American official in the Biden administration.

On Tuesday, Coloretti discussed how the agency is working on updating 1997 guidelines on collecting race and ethnicity data.

“Good data is critical to good policy,” Coloretti said. “This is really about being seen and heard.”

Since 1997, the Office of Management and Budget has recommended that federal agencies disaggregate Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders from the Asian American racial category. That isn’t always followed, but the Biden administration highlighted several ways that it has sought to fulfill that 26-year-old recommendation in addition to pushing to update it.

President Joe Biden speaks about the May jobs report, Friday, June 3, 2022, in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Joe Biden announced more support Tuesday for Native Hawaiian, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky/2022

Julie Su, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor, noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has begun publishing monthly unemployment data on Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. She noted the data revealed the community experienced unemployment at more than double the national unemployment rate in November 2020, several months into pandemic economic shutdowns.

“If you don’t disaggregate then disparities experienced by specific AANHPI ethnic communities are masked and rendered invisible,” Su said Tuesday. “When that’s the case then it becomes impossible to address the very real employment, education, housing, civil rights and other needs of the community.”

The Biden administration’s announcement noted the Federal Housing Finance Agency similarly last year published mortgage approval rates by race and ethnicity. When lumped together, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders were approved for mortgage loans less than 80% of the time, far less often than Asian or white Americans who were approved more than 80% of the time.

But breaking down that data further found noticeable differences within the NHPI umbrella. Hawaiians received mortgage loans more than 80% of the time. People who identified as Chamorro or Guamanian reported mortgage approval rates of just under 80%. Samoans were approved less often than both of those communities, and anyone who identified as “Other Pacific Islander” received mortgages less than 70% of the time.

Ultimately, the data showed that “Other Pacific Islanders” — which includes Chuukese, Marshallese and other Pasifika groups — had the second-lowest mortgage loan approval rates of all race and ethnic groups studied.

Josie Howard, executive director of the social service organization We Are Oceania, said disaggregated data was critical to her work during the Covid-19 pandemic as it revealed that Chuukese and Marshallese families were dying from Covid at high rates and enabled her organization to ensure they were appropriately staffed to meet the communities’ linguistic and cultural needs.

Data disaggregation can inform agencies what sort of language and cultural access they need to provide, Howard said, especially when it comes to understanding critical health care information that can mean life or death.

“If people don’t understand the message, then there’s no equity in there,” she said.

Amy Agbayani, a longtime advocate for Hawaii’s Filipino community, said she’s confident that the Biden administration’s initiative will result in better data collection for her own Filipino community because it’s relatively large, and said there’s growing recognition that their experiences are quite different than East Asian communities they are often combined with. In Hawaii, Filipinos make up at least 16% of the state population.

“It really impacts real lives if you don’t count people at all or count them wrong,” she said.

But she also thinks there should be more support for disaggregating data and providing language access for Pacific Islander communities, despite their relatively small populations.

“There are significant, wonderful programs for Spanish and then zero for the Pacific Islander languages,” Agbayani said.

Agbayani is part of the president’s commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and thus was pleased but not surprised by Tuesday’s announcement. Even though it will take time and resources for the strategies to be implemented, she’s grateful that people within the Biden administration are using their platform to push these issues.

“For the federal government to tell their own people, ‘These are priorities,’ that should help us,” she said.

Click here to read the fact sheet on Biden’s national strategy regarding Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. 

Click here to learn about the Biden administration’s 2021 executive order and read through the 32 agency plans. 

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