Jonathan Okamura: Micronesians Are The Most Denigrated Group In Hawaii. We Need To Be More Concerned - 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

Hawaii schools in particular need to do more to stop discrimination and bullying in on campus.

In late February, a major national news network program contacted me to discuss Micronesians in Hawaii.

The production team had decided to do a story on the topic after reading a research brief that I co-authored last year — “Racism and Discrimination against Micronesians in Hawaii: Issues of Educational Inequity.”

I was surprised. Why is a news organization as far away as New York paying attention to how we treat Micronesians as an issue of national significance, when it sometimes seems like people in Hawaii don’t share a similar concern?

The paper mentioned above was issued by the Hawaii Scholars for Education and Social Justice, a research and advocacy group of primarily University of Hawaii faculty and graduate students started in 2018. Based on a review of recent studies, it discusses the various forms of racism and discrimination that Micronesians are subject to in public education and in Hawaii more generally.

The brief concludes with policy recommendations to the state Department of Education, the University of Hawaii and the Legislature on how to enhance educational opportunities for Micronesians. In an effort to have our recommendations to the DOE addressed, we sought and were granted a 45-minute meeting with the Superintendent of Education Keith Hayashi last November. 

The meeting was arranged by Shanty Asher, a state Board of Education member who is from the Federated States of Micronesia. An attorney, Asher also is the Pacific Islander liaison officer for Honolulu’s Office of Economic Revitalization

We Are Oceania Micronesian Festival crowd.
Nonprofit groups like We Are Oceania organize meetings such as this 2018 Micronesian Youth Summit to try to help the community. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

The 9,000 Micronesians in public schools comprise a significant 5% of the overall student population. Micronesians outnumber Samoans (3.3%) and Chinese Americans (3%), groups that immigrated to Hawaii much earlier. These students constitute a majority of the roughly 15,000 Micronesians in the state, a little more than 1% of our population.

At the meeting with the superintendent, we summarized the major findings of our research paper, including racial profiling of Micronesians by the police and racist stereotyping and representations of them, especially in social media. We also discussed the bullying, racist treatment and much lower graduation rates from high school of Micronesian students. 

Based on our research and other studies, I consider Micronesians the most racially oppressed and denigrated group in Hawaii. While others might contend that Native Hawaiians as a colonized people are more oppressed, I don’t think they are subject to the same kind of dehumanizing denigration as Micronesians.

DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi.
DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi says he won’t tolerate discrimination in public schools. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

After going considerably beyond the 45 minutes we had been allotted for our meeting, much to our surprise, the superintendent said he wanted to meet with us again. This much larger meeting in December included many representatives of the Micronesian community, including leaders, and several Bilingual/Bicultural School-Home Assistants in the DOE. 

The assistants serve as much-needed interpreters between parents and their children’s teachers and enable both parties to communicate effectively with one another about how students are doing in school.

Despite the considerable variety of Micronesian languages spoken in Hawaii, DOE funding restrictions limit BSHA to assisting Chuukese and Marshallese speakers. BSHA who speak other languages serve other immigrant groups in the public schools.

At the meeting, a few of the interpreters shared personal experiences of discrimination they have had while working in the DOE system. Thus, at our next meeting with the superintendent in February, one of the agenda items was the DOE’s response to bullying of and discrimination against Micronesian students and staff in the public schools.

Based on our research and other studies, I consider Micronesians the most racially oppressed and denigrated group in Hawaii.

Hayashi replied forcefully that he does not tolerate any bullying and discrimination against Micronesian students and staff or against anyone else in public schools. He added that if anyone knows about any such incident, they should contact his office, and he will personally follow up with the principal whose school is involved.

I have no doubt that the superintendent was sincere and that he would respond in a forthright manner if such information is provided to him.

Late last year, the Board of Education voted to approve the DOE’s request for 25 additional positions for BSHA, which the DOE then included in its budget request to the governor’s office. Currently, 18 BSHA serve six complex areas and five of the 258 public schools in the entire state for Micronesian, Samoan and Filipino students, which is much too insufficient.

In his proposed biennium budget to the Legislature, Gov. Josh Green requested 25 full-time-equivalent permanent positions for BSHA for fiscal year 2024 and an additional 50 such positions for the following fiscal year. Including $100,000 in each year for translation services, the total amount requested is $3.3 million, which is a paltry sum relative to the governor’s budget request of almost $36 billion. 

Nonetheless, I expect that far fewer than the requested number of new BSHA positions will be funded. This outcome is likely to happen, despite the critical need for many more interpreters and the vital services they provide, and the almost $2 billion in surplus funds the Legislature has to appropriate this session. 

Underfunding is a chronic problem in K-12 public education in Hawaii, regardless of the best intentions of the superintendent, the DOE administration and the Board of Education. In spite of widespread denials, the most concrete indicator that the DOE is inadequately funded by the Legislature is that the schools have been operating for years without a sufficient number of qualified teachers. 

The Honolulu Police Department has sought to improve outreach by holding meetings with the Micronesian community. (Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat/2022)

Desperate to fill classrooms with instructors, the DOE has resorted for decades to employing emergency hire staff who lack a license to teach in Hawaii and therefore are unqualified to be teachers. They have at minimum a bachelor’s degree, which need not be in education or related to the courses they are assigned to teach.

The DOE “Employment Report, School Year 2021-2022” indicates that between the 2017-2018 and 2021-2022 school years, the DOE hired 1,664 new teachers who lack a Hawaii teaching license, or about 27% of the 6,230 new teachers hired during that five-year period. 

Despite such emergency hires, at the August 2022 start of the current school year, Osa Tui Jr, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the union representing the 13,500 DOE educators, predicted that the schools still would be short about 1,000 teachers. Ongoing resignation and retirement of teachers have contributed to the teacher deficit because their salaries do not meet the high cost of living in Hawaii.

The long-term teacher shortage demonstrates that K-12 public education is not a policy priority of our legislators, even when they have a huge budget surplus to spend. The proportion of the state budget allocated to public education has continuously declined over the past 15 years.

According to a report on state-by-state expenditures by the National Association of State Budget Officers, the percentage of Hawaii’s state budget for K-12 education plummeted from 26.8% in 2006 to 10.6% in 2021, a 60% decrease. After coming out of the global recession by 2010, Hawaii’s economy was roaring with annual budget surpluses of several hundred millions of dollars, but those additional funds were not spent on the public schools.

Underfunding of the DOE schools differentially impacts Native Hawaiian and ethnic minority students, who together constitute 70% of the enrollment. The other 30% consists of Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and whites, the groups that are well represented in the private schools. 

Inadequate funding of the DOE by the Legislature means that students, including Micronesians, are being provided with an inadequate education.

If a national news network considers such problems encountered by Micronesians important enough to travel all the way to the islands to do a story about them, perhaps we should also be concerned about their situation.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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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)

No mention of Tongans in your article. Have they no problems?How do you address the apparent rifts or divisions within the Micronesian communities themselves?

AThot · 6 months ago

What this article is missing is some hard data and facts. Micronesians are the latest large group of immigrants to Hawaii and will undoubtedly face struggles as they adjust, learning the language being one of the main adjustments. But how are they being discriminated against? What are the rates of bullying incidents in schools?

elrod · 6 months ago

Everyone reading this article should send it to their state representative and senator, asking them to finally support the education of ALL of our children. Hold their feet to the fire.

MsW · 6 months ago

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