Jonathan Okamura: Why Filipino Americans Haven't Fully Made It In Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Increased representation among students and faculty at UH would go a long way toward improving their economic situation.

When I returned to Hawaii in 1974 to begin my dissertation research on Filipino immigrants, I commonly heard that Filipinos would be the next group to “make it” in the islands. 

Their growing population, as a result of ongoing immigration, seemed to contribute to this optimistic view. Their eventual success also appeared to be based on the assumption that Filipinos would inevitably follow Chinese and Japanese, who had preceded them on the plantations and certainly had made it by the 1970s.

But since that decade it has become much more difficult for ethnic groups in Hawaii to make it, which can include political and economic dimensions. Filipino Americans can be said to have made it politically when Ben Cayetano became governor in 1994 — the first among them to be elected to a statewide office — and was reelected four years later. 

Cayetano followed two other nonwhite governors — Japanese American George Ariyoshi and Native Hawaiian John Waihee — the first elected since statehood in 1959. But no Filipino has represented Hawaii in Congress, unlike Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Hawaiians and whites.

Filipino American political success in Hawaii has been most evident in the Legislature. After the 2022 elections, the seven Filipinos in the state Senate, including those who are racially or ethnically mixed, constitute the largest ethnic group among the 25 senators. With nine members in the state House of Representatives, they are less well represented while Japanese Americans continue as the most numerous group. 

Governor Ben Cayetano interview at his residence. 21 april 2017
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano became the first Filipino American elected to a statewide office in 1994. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

Filipino Americans have been less successful economically and clearly have yet to achieve full middle-class status. According to American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau between 2011 and 2015, they remain a predominantly working class group based on their educational, income and occupational status.

Underrepresentation At UH

In the past, Chinese and Japanese used the public education system, including the University of Hawaii, to attain socioeconomic mobility and enter the middle class by the 1960s. However, Filipino Americans (and Native Hawaiians and other ethnic minorities) have not found the university as supportive of their efforts to advance themselves socioeconomically.

Underrepresentation is a persisting problem for Filipinos in the UH system. This issue has become more significant since they recently emerged as the largest ethnic group in our public schools (24%). This figure is about the same as their percentage of Hawaii’s population as the second-largest group after whites. However, Filipino Americans are nowhere near one-fourth of UH students and faculty.

A report I recently wrote for the University of Hawaii Pamantasan Council, an organization concerned with enhancing the representation and status of Filipino Americans in the UH system, found that they are only 14% of UH undergraduate students.

Filipinos are especially underrepresented at UH Manoa (11%), UH Hilo (6%), and the community colleges (18%). They have their highest percentage representation at Maui College (25%) which, while primarily a community college, offers several bachelor’s degrees. Filipinos are proportionately represented at UH West Oahu (22%), Leeward Community College (23%), and Honolulu Community College (20%), which can be partially attributed to their proximity to Filipino American communities.

Underrepresentation must not be equated with academic underachievement. Filipino students who enter the UH four-year campuses as first-time freshmen directly after finishing high school have four-year and six-year graduation rates above the overall rate for their entering cohorts. For example, at UH Manoa, after four years of matriculation, Filipinos who started at the university in fall 2017 had a graduation rate (42%) higher than the overall rate for that freshman cohort.

The same holds true for the four-year and six-year graduation rates of Filipino freshmen at UH West Oahu, where they have the highest graduation rates of all students, and at UH Hilo.

Admitting more Filipino Americans would seem to mean more college graduates among them and hence more of them advancing socioeconomically, besides addressing their underrepresentation as students. 

Students and others discuss ways to increase the numbers of Filipino Americans at UH during the 2018 Pamantasan Conference. (Courtesy: Christine Quemuel/2018)

The underrepresentation problem is far worse for Filipino faculty in the UH system where progress has been much slower in increasing their numbers. According to the Pamantasan Council report, in 2021 there were only 69 Filipino Americans, or 4.2%, among all instructional faculty in the entire system, particularly those who are tenured or tenure track.

At UH Manoa, Filipino tenured or tenure-track instructional faculty numbered just 22, or 2.5%, and had similarly very low representation at UH Hilo (six faculty, or 3.8%), UH West Oahu (four faculty, 5.3%), and the UH community colleges (37 faculty, 6.7%).

These minimal numbers have not expanded much during the past decade. In 2011, Filipino tenured or tenure-track instructional faculty in the UH system totaled 68, or 3.3%, of such faculty, including 17, or 1.7%, at UH Manoa.

Several factors can be cited to account for those appallingly low figures, but a lack of Filipinos with doctoral degrees is not one of them.

Academic Success

Last fall, Maui-born Dean Itsuji Saranillio joined the political science department at UH Manoa after teaching for a number of years at New York University and earning a doctorate from the University of Michigan. The year before, J. Lorenzo Perillio, who received a master’s degree from UH Manoa before his Ph.D. from UCLA, became an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance. 

Having more Filipino professors can directly impact the educational and professional success of Filipino American students through their classroom interaction and personal support of them.

Besides those individual efforts, during the past 50 years Filipino Americans have sought collectively to alleviate their underrepresentation as students and faculty in the UH system.

They have established academic programs, such as the Center for Philippine Studies, and student services programs, such as Operation Manong, at UH Manoa. They also have formed their own academic organizations, such as the Pamantasan Council (pamantasan can be translated as higher education in Tagalog).

Making it in Hawaii for an ethnic group, let alone individual families, became much more difficult once tourism, with its primarily service and sales jobs, emerged as the state’s economic mainstay in the 1970s.

Thus, talk about the “next group to make it” has not been heard much, if at all, since then, as families have been focused on making do. Driven by the high cost of living, especially for housing, too many island residents, including Filipino Americans, are instead making it out of here.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

from a strictly academic view i know the article sheds light on a specific group at a specific level of post high school education. there are so many variables in deciding to go to school beyond high school it is unfair to pick a specific ethnic group.

dork · 6 months ago

Ethnic considerations aside, I take issue with the assumption (as does poster SteveK below) that a college education automatically bestows economic advancement/success in the 21st century. This is particularly true for those who would need to rely on student loans to pay for a university liberal arts education.18 year olds, no matter their race, need to make decisions with wide open eyes, fully aware of how much their desired degree will cost...& how they plan to eventually pay off their loan. Right now, too many are hastily saddling themselves in debt w/no repayment plan...taking it on faith that whatever degree major they get will land them a job that provides sufficient income to pay off the loan & pay for the rent. That is a pathway to potential financial ruin, especially if one wants to survive in Hawaii, with the high cost of living & tight job market.

KalihiValleyHermit · 6 months ago

So another story that college is the only path to success. So sad as it ignores the trades and skills that pay immediately and can be a rewarding career!

SteveK · 6 months ago

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