Hawaiian native-only schools are justifiable

The justness of discriminatory admission policies should be assessed on their consequences for society, not the current standard.

Jason Ketola

Unless you’re from Hawaii, you probably haven’t heard of the native-only Kamehameha Schools or the controversy surrounding them today. A non-native teenager recently sued the schools for denying him admission for not being able to prove native bloodlines. He won the case in a 2-1 ruling stating that the schools’ admission policy violates civil rights law. Should the current appeal by Kamehameha go through, the appeals court should consider the consequences the Kamehameha Schools have on society rather than support a double standard on discriminatory admission.

Kamehameha is well-known for its quality of education and it serves the important purpose of protecting Hawaiian culture and helping to remedy the inequalities that have befallen native Hawaiians since their monarchy fell in 1893 to U.S. businesses and sugar planters. The schools argue that they are remedying the tremendous inequality which befell the natives. If so, they are justifiable on that basis. I’ll explain this below from a position that doesn’t usually come up in affirmative action-type debates.

You can almost always guarantee that two specific positions will be raised whenever selective hiring or admission based on race or sex is discussed. One side will argue that it’s a racist and sexist practice that merely reverses the tide of discrimination it’s supposed to stop. The other side will point to the sexual and racial inequalities that they argue exist because of discrimination.

In a way, both sides are right. Sexual and racial inequalities exist that are most plausibly explained by discrimination. This is obvious in Hawaii where natives have experienced a history of discrimination much like minorities in the continental United States. Yet, the very practice of giving preference to native Hawaiians for admission meets the definition of discrimination itself.

Assuming one thinks that current inequality, as a result of discrimination, is wrong, should we be appalled that discriminatory practices are used to rectify the situation? We can resolutely answer – no.

To see why I say that, let’s first ask why we would want to rectify the racial inequalities that exist. Potential answers include that access to better education reduces economic disparity, thus decreasing crime, or that better education gives natives a greater political voice, which they could use right now given that the Akaka bill before Congress relates to their potential sovereignty. The consequences of rectifying the inequalities between natives and non-natives would benefit both groups. While reducing inequality here has good consequences, can we discriminate in order to achieve these good consequences?

Consider a different example. Admission to medical school relies on a certain set of criteria, including an MCAT score. Admitting people with high MCAT scores to medical school ensures that our society will have the best doctors and other medical professionals possible. In fact, the Association of American Medical Colleges requires medical schools to set thresholds for admittance in order for the schools to be accredited. The consequences again drive the selection procedure, because we think a society with the best possible doctors is a desirable one.

Think for a minute about these two scenarios. In both cases, the consequences of having a better society affect how we discriminate among the candidates for the Kamehameha Schools and for medical school. In what way is discriminating based on race versus MCAT scores different – such that many of us see the former as bad and yet have no problem with the latter?

To answer that question, we should further ask whether race or medical aptitude entitles one to be treated a certain way. We can all agree that one’s race does not mean one is better than another person of a different race or that one inherently deserves more consideration because of his/her race. Similarly, there is nothing that says those who can score well on the MCAT ought to get into medical school.

The admission policy for Kamehameha operates based on its consequences, just as medical school admissions policies were developed based on their consequences. Only native Hawaiians are accepted to the Kamehameha Schools, which may be better for society.

So, those opposing discriminatory admission policy on the grounds that it’s racist better own up to the fact that discrimination on ability, a characteristic on which people innately differ, occurs all over the place. In other words, to say that selection based on race is wrong is also to say that merit-based selection is wrong.

On the other side, those supporting Kamehameha might as well admit that the practice is discriminatory and get to the crux of the argument for it – it can make for a better society.

Granted it’s possible that the Kamehameha Schools are not having a good effect in Hawaii. It would take research to assess their consequences. That’s exactly how the court should decide this case, not on the spurious position that discrimination based on race is always wrong while other types of discrimination are OK.

If the Kamehameha Schools continue to have good consequences by reducing the inequality between native and non-native Hawaiians, their discriminatory admissions policy is justifiable. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals should recognize this if it accepts Kamehameha’s appeal.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]