Weekly Column of Sen. Lamar Alexander -“One Nation . . . Indivisible”

Posted on June 12, 2006

There once was a popular newspaper feature called “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” It highlighted strange and seemingly impossible things, then showed they were actually true. In that vein, the Senate discussed a bill last week that would have carved out of the United States a new sovereign nation based solely on race. It’s true. The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act would have created a separate, independent, race-based government for Native Hawaiians. But, you say, Hawaiians are Americans. They are. In 1900 they became U.S. citizens. Ever since, they have saluted the flag, paid U.S. taxes, fought in our wars. In 1959, 94 percent of all Hawaiians voted in favor of Hawaii becoming a state. Why should this matter to Tennesseans? Because had the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act won the backing of 60 senators last week – it got 56 – it would have turned on its head the very definition of what it means to be an American–something that matters a great deal to most Tennesseans. Every day, in classrooms, at civic gatherings and in Congress, we rise and pledge allegiance to “one nation, indivisible”—not divisible. Our national motto, e pluribus unum, means “one from many”—not “many from one.” Our Constitution guarantees equal opportunity without regard to race, not because of it. This nation is unique because, under our constitution, becoming an American has nothing to do with ancestry. America is an idea; Americans are a people, not a race. Our founding documents give us the principles that unite us—liberty, representative democracy, the rule of law. These do not come from our various ancestries. Proponents of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act say that “native Hawaiians” are “different” because they lived on the Hawaiian Islands before Asian and white settlers came and before their government was undermined by Americans. Thus, the proponents claim, they should be treated like an American Indian tribe. But to be recognized as an Indian tribe under U.S. law, a group must have operated as sovereign for the previous 100 years, must be a distinct community, and must have had a preexisting political organization. Native Hawaiians do not meet any of these requirements. The state of Hawaii acknowledged this in a 1998 Supreme Court brief stating, “The tribal concept simply has no place in the context of Hawaiian history.” Had this bill passed—creating a separate government for “native Hawaiians”—it would have set a dangerous precedent for which there might be no end in sight. Congress has recognized pre-existing American Indian tribes, but it has never created one. If this bill had passed, what would be next? Descendants of Hispanics who lived in Texas before it became a republic in 1836 might seek to create their own tribe, based on claims that their land was seized from Mexico. Amish or Hassidic Jewish groups might seek tribal status to get around First Amendment protections against giving preferences to a particular religion. This bill was cited by some as a good example of “diversity.” Diversity is an American strength, but not our most important one. Many other countries are diverse: Iraq, Bosnia, France—to name a few. What sets the U.S. apart is our ability to mold our multiple ancestries and diversity into a single nation based upon common principles, common traditions and our common language. The proposed government for “native Hawaiians” would be based solely on race. Surely we have learned our lesson about treating people differently based on race. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—created to protect the rights of minorities—opposed the bill because it “...would discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups according varying degrees of privilege.” As a nation, we have sought to right old wrongs by guaranteeing respect for each American as an individual, regardless of race. This “native Hawaiian” legislation would have compounded the old wrongs and could have been, unintentionally, the first step in the disuniting of these United States. I’m proud the Senate defeated such a measure.