That changed in the 1950s, when the geopolitical importance of the islands and an emerging narrative framing Asians as a “model minority” accelerated demands for statehood. The cause of statehood was embraced by racial liberals who believed racism in the United States was damaging the nation’s reputation abroad and social cohesion at home. They argued that Asians in Hawaii were a boon to the nation rather than a liability, and that they deserved statehood because of their usefulness to the national project.
But while statehood helped to empower Hawaii’s people of Asian descent, it did so by promoting a narrow, conditional form of inclusion, wherein only “good immigrants” were deemed worthy of full citizenship. Insisting that racial minorities prove themselves worthy in order to access the rights and opportunities of citizenship undermines equality. Ultimately, such rhetoric has led to enduring forms of exclusion, and helped harden borders against immigrants while entrenching racism and racial hierarchies in the United States.
For decades, Hawaii was an important military outpost that supported American economic ventures in Asia. But statehood was out of the question. The white minority in Hawaii feared that statehood would give political power to Asians, most who had come to the islands as imported laborers in the 19th and early 20th centuries to work on sugar plantations, the main source of white wealth in Hawaii.
Mainland Americans, meanwhile, saturated with a steady diet of “Yellow Peril” tropes, believed Asians in Hawaii were too foreign to be trusted with full democratic representation. It was this same attitude that led to laws, in effect from the late-19th century until after World War II, that restricted Asian migration and denied naturalized U.S. citizenship to Asian immigrants.
Hawaii’s status changed in the 1950s due to a series of overlapping developments. The white planter class backed statehood after Congress enacted the Sugar Act of 1934, which restricted sugar exports to the mainland. At the same time, a growing constituency of Asian Americans born in the territory — and thereby U.S. citizens — began agitating for statehood. In 1954 they propelled the Democratic Party to power in Hawaii, overturning the Republicans’ five-decade rule and putting more muscle behind the local statehood campaign.
But it was the Cold War and global decolonization that granted Hawaii and its people new strategic significance to the United States and made statehood possible. As the United States worked to win the allegiance of the decolonizing nations in Asia, members of Congress were increasingly concerned about the nation’s global image and eager to counter Soviet propaganda portraying the United States as a racist imperial power.
The campaign for statehood rested on claims that multiracial Hawaii would be both a “bridge to Asia” and proof of American racial egalitarianism. Though hardly a committed racial liberal, President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported statehood for the territory because Hawaii was “a successful laboratory in human brotherhood” that “would be a shining example of the American way to the entire Earth.” Hawaii statehood, in short, was great for public relations.
But this celebration of Hawaii as an exemplary community had some troubling implications.
For instance, to underscore Hawaii’s readiness for full inclusion in the nation, statehood supporters pointed to Puerto Rico as an example of a U.S. territory that shouldn’t become a state. In response to the suggestion by a group of segregationist Southern senators that Hawaii residents pursue commonwealth status — which Puerto Ricans had voted for in 1952 and which gave the territory greater autonomy in local governance — Hawaii congressional delegate, Elizabeth Farrington, responded by denigrating Puerto Rico. “The people of Hawaii,” she said, “do not want to be like Puerto Rico, which has been the poorest section of our Nation.”
Indeed, Puerto Ricans in the post-World War II period were often maligned as perpetuating a “culture of poverty.” And while Eisenhower extolled Hawaii as a “laboratory of human brotherhood,” Puerto Rico in the 1950s was turned into a laboratory for testing the birth control pill, where patently unethical trials were justified by social Darwinist claims that the island was pathologically overpopulated.
The contrast between the treatment of Hawaii and Puerto Rico reflected a mainstream, if often unspoken, belief that some minority groups were more valuable to the nation than others. In 1965, when Congress was debating the repeal of nativist immigration policies, Hawaii’s new congressional delegation helped make the case that Asian immigrants were a particular asset to the United States.
In remarks before the Senate, Mike Masaoka, of the Japanese American Citizens League, identified Hawaii’s two U.S. senators, Hiram Fong and Daniel Inouye, as paragons of Asian American social mobility. According to Masaoka, the Chinese-American Fong and Japanese-American Inouye “personif[ied] the kind of Americans that those of oriental background can be and are.” By this he meant “law-abiding” homeowners who “remain off the relief rolls,” and “are more community and civic-minded” and had higher incomes than the average American.
Rep. Spark Matsunaga, meanwhile, pointed to the foreign policy significance of U.S. immigration law. It was important to change the law, he said, not only to “remove the stigma of prejudice” against Asians, but to “sustain the faith of our Allies.”
Such statements spoke to a broader progressive narrative on race and immigration, one that portrayed Asian Americans as a “model minority” and underscored their symbolic value to America’s expansionist project in Asia. And indeed, the resulting Hart-Celler Immigration Act dramatically expanded migration from Asia to the United States, overturning nearly a century of racist law that sought to keep Asians out.
But that same legislation, passed by a Congress that included no representatives from the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, also imposed numerical restrictions for the first time on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, thereby penalizing and stigmatizing Latin American and Caribbean immigrants.
Today, the ongoing reliance on the ideas of the “good immigrant” or “model minority” sustains a harmful logic of racial hierarchy shrouded in the language of racial enlightenment. Due in large part to debates and policies that can be traced back to the 1950s and 1960s, some Asian immigrants continue to be held up as ideal immigrants, while Latin American and Caribbean immigrants are profiled by law and immigration enforcement and tarred as “illegal.”
Like their mid-century counterparts, many liberals today like to point to the various benefits immigrants confer on the United States — as when former vice president Joe Biden stated that anyone with a doctorate should automatically receive a green card — as a way to combat the xenophobia fueled by President Trump.
But history shows us that while this type of rhetoric can benefit certain groups of immigrants, it often comes at the expense of others. Hawaii’s statehood was an outcome of this value system, and while it helped change the rules for many Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, it also upheld a policy regime that continues to keep others unrepresented and unwelcome. The inclusion of nonwhite Americans and immigrants in our communities should not be justified because of their value to the United States, but on the basis of their humanity.