Ben Lowenthal: Hawaii In The 1940s Had Its Share Of State-Sanctioned Racism - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Ben Lowenthal

Ben Lowenthal grew up on Maui. He earned his undergraduate degree studying journalism at San Francisco State University and his law degree at the University of Kansas. He is a deputy public defender on Maui practicing criminal defense in trial and appellate courts. He also runs “Hawaii Legal News,” a blog covering Hawaii appellate courts. The author's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach him at

As the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to make a decision on affirmative action, revisiting Hawaii’s history is important.

As the Supreme Court of the United States winds down its term this month, we are still waiting to know if schools can still use race to create a more diverse campus and assist those who have been historically oppressed or faced discrimination. Some experts think it could be the end of affirmative action.

Compared to the mainland, Hawaii schools enjoy a long tradition of racial and ethnic diversity. At my high school, for example, my classmates weren’t just local kids of several racial and ethnic backgrounds from Waiehu to Kihei. We included immigrants from Asia, Micronesia, Polynesia and Latin America and migrants from the other states. That kind of diversity is uncommon in many parts of the mainland.

It wasn’t always like this. While overt school segregation never took root in Hawaii public schools, the islands had their own form of discrimination in schools.

In 1922, the territorial government felt that public school children — many of whom came from bilingual households — weren’t speaking proper English. Instead of teaching language skills to everyone, the kids were segregated based on a language proficiency test.

The ones who passed were sent to separate elementary, intermediate and high schools called “English standard schools.” The ones who didn’t or didn’t take the test at all went to “non-English” schools. Unsurprisingly, the English standard schools were fewer in number.

Eventually realtors used a home’s proximity to an English standard school as a selling point. Advertisements sought locations near an English standard school to rent.

While Maui, Molokai, and the Big Island had a few English standard schools and segregated classes, most were in Honolulu. There, a student could go from elementary school through high school without integrating with non-English schools. And in 1940, noting an influx of military families coming to Oahu, school officials declared Maemae Elementary School in Nuuanu an English standard school.

Students at Maemae Elementary took the test. Only 50 out of 220 passed and got to stay. The rest were forced to go elsewhere. Their parents, most of whom were Asian American, Native Hawaiian and ethnically Portuguese, refused. They weren’t going quietly. They picketed the school and demanded that it remain “non-English.”

“You’ve given us a raw deal! We’re American citizens and this school is for this community,” a parent told reporters.

School officials were unmoved. The parents wouldn’t give in. They defied the compulsory attendance law and kept their kids at home.


Territorial Sen. David Trask told the press he never liked English standard schools. “I have always said it was not the American way because it makes snobs out of young people. We are supposed to teach equal rights to all and special privileges to none.”

A stalemate ensued. The parents formed a committee, got two lawyers and petitioned the Department of Instruction — the territorial precursor to the Department of Education — to keep their kids there. Once again, they were rebuffed.

From our vantage point, this plan of kicking out children of their school because of the way they spoke should seem absurd and smacks of racism. But at the time, the law was firmly stacked against them.

Long before the civil disobedience at Maemae Elementary and thousands of miles away, Homer Plessy set out to break the law. He bought a train ticket, identified himself as “colored” (though he could have passed the color line), and sat in the car reserved for whites. The police and other passengers dragged him out, and he was prosecuted. In New Orleans and in 1892, it was a crime for people of color to sit in cars reserved for white people.

Plessy challenged the law. He argued that the openly racist statute violated the 14th Amendment’s mandate that states cannot deny its people “equal protection of the laws.” The judge, John Howard Ferguson, disagreed. His case eventually went to the Supreme Court of the United States.

He lost. In 1896, the Court gave us Plessy v. Ferguson, and held that laws separating whites from everyone else don’t violate the 14th Amendment so long as there are “equal” facilities. Jim Crow didn’t offend the Constitution.

If Southern states could openly discriminate like that, what would the courts make of English standard schools? Maybe that’s why the parents steered clear of the courts and got political. They petitioned the governor to intervene, who referred it to the Legislature.

In 1940, students at Maemae Elementary School on Oahu were required to take a test in order to stay in school. (Photo by Jessica Domingo)

A resolution wound its way through committees. At a crucial hearing in the spring of 1941, lawyers for the parents didn’t attack the system itself, and were careful to say nothing publicly about the underlying racism in the school system. They presented practical reasons for keeping students close to their homes and argued the expense of sending kids out of their district was unfair and burdensome. It worked. The Legislature stopped school officials from changing Maemae Elementary.

English standard schools lasted for nearly another 10 years in Hawaii. Proponents of the schools claimed it wasn’t racist, local kids just needed to work harder at speaking properly. It was a dubious claim. Plenty of local kids code switch to “proper” English. Maui’s U.S. House member Patsy Takemoto Mink and U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Hiram Fong all went to “non-English” schools.

Others saw the system for what it was: an obnoxious form of segregation. English standard schools were gradually phased out entirely by the early 1950s — not long before the Supreme Court overruled Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education.

These long-gone forms of segregation are still with us in a way. The ghost of the infamous segregation case continues to haunt New Orleans. I saw it on a recent trip there. Edward Douglass White fought for the Confederacy and took up arms in a violent insurrection against Reconstruction. The native Louisianan later made it onto the Supreme Court. He joined the majority of the justices in upholding the conviction against Plessy. He even became Chief Justice in 1910.

Instead of letting him fade into history, Louisiana displayed a bronze statue of him outside its Supreme Court building in the French Quarter. He wasn’t removed until 2020 in response to mounting pressure to rid the South of Confederate and segregationist memorials. But the statue is not gone. He’s still on display inside the state Supreme Court building.

As for Homer Plessy, he pleaded guilty and was fined $25. The governor eventually pardoned him — in 2022 after he had been dead for nearly a century. Unlike Chief Justice White, there are no surviving images of the man. Nevertheless, schools in the city bear his name.

Ironically, if the Supreme Court in Washington does declare affirmative action unconstitutional, it will be striking down policies that were put in place because of laws like the Separate Car Act that the court upheld in Plessy. It will stop institutions from trying to address the inequality people like Plessy or even the students at “non-English” schools had to endure for so long.

The bronze statue in New Orleans serves as a reminder that judicial accommodation of state-sanctioned racism is a troubling part of our American heritage. But so is the persistence of people like Plessy and parents at Maemae Elementary. Where’s their monument?

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About the Author

Ben Lowenthal

Ben Lowenthal grew up on Maui. He earned his undergraduate degree studying journalism at San Francisco State University and his law degree at the University of Kansas. He is a deputy public defender on Maui practicing criminal defense in trial and appellate courts. He also runs “Hawaii Legal News,” a blog covering Hawaii appellate courts. The author's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach him at

Latest Comments (0)

Strange .. I had to learn German in public school when I lived in Germany in the 80s, so odd that Hawaiian language isn't mandatory curriculum in Hawaii public schools. Sounds like another Hawaii DOE fail. My kids are homeschooled (non-compulsory) and are planning to take Hawaiian language online with ʻŌlelo Online classes. We lived for years and it always shocked me that my own neighbor who used to perform at one of the many luaus, couldn't tell me what was being said. Maybe it's time to include Hawaiian language in the public school curriculum.

Dan · 3 months ago

Nice job Ben. Goes along with "one nation, ...indivisible with liberty and justice for all." One class of education for all, regardless of speech gives us that.

oldsurfa · 3 months ago

To clarify it was one language being discriminated against, Hawaiian Pidgin. In 1938, J. Rieneke published an academic article on this and I understand it is seen as a separate language and not "bad" English. It has played a role in understanding language aquisition and I have seen it referenced in Psych textbooks. Discrimination was very much a labor market institution here and served to keep immigrant labor on the plantations at low wages, and the language these workers spoke was pidgin. On annexation Hawaiians became American citizens and had the vote. After the Aloha Aina party, an independent minded party won the first election Kuhio ran for Congressional delegate, and the Republican Party developed as a coalition of native Hawaiians and white businessmen and completely dominated elections here up to 1954. The system of discrimination that developed here was anti-immigrant, anti asian and included schools and housing. For example Japanese were excluded from Hawaii Kai. This is detailed in Hawaii Pono by Fuchs. I fear a similar process is underway nationally now with the sort of anti-immigrant furor nationally.

Lboyd · 3 months ago

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