Thursday, July 02, 2015


Kakaako as an example of economic segregation in Hawaii

by Larry Geller

The Kakaako homeless encampment currently spotlighted in the news is an extreme example of the economic segregation of neighborhoods in Honolulu that mirrors similar divides in other major American cities.

The segregation is not benign. It is a result of anti-poor policies on a national, state and city level over the past 30 years at least. In the racially-biased South of the Mainland USA, anti-black and anti-poor policies are more blatant, but anti-poor policies are not far below the surface here in Hawaii.

Whites in the American South learned to exercise their privilege and routinely (on a daily, continuous basis) used the structure of social stratification and income segregation to intimidate and keep African-Americans “in their place.” We see a reflection of that attitude here.

In Honolulu, the well-off can be housed. It’s pricy, but that’s no issue for those with money. Interestingly, the Kakaako area is planned to be re-developed (“gentrified”) for the sole benefit of this moneyed class, at the expense of everyone else. As to those living in poverty, the situation is now at a crisis stage but remains off the media radar.

Yesterday’s newspaper editorial actually called for the destruction of the homeless camp currently located in Kakaako.

Waikiki and the business district are currently off-limits to street dwellers due to recently passed city ordinances (some passed despite warnings of the city’s own legal counsel). Parks and beaches are closed to them. So where would the homeless go? Into the safety of income-segregated neighborhoods where the affluent not only won’t see them but could even more conveniently choose to ignore their very existence.

Honolulu faces a growing and perhaps insurmountable shortage of affordable housing. Add to that an increasingly regressive tax burden, the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, the failure of the state legislature to pass a realistic minimum wage bill, cuts in social welfare programs instituted at the national level, and the devaluation of everyone’s income in the past 30 years or so, and the stratification and marginalization of the poor in Hawaii is likely to increase.

The situation is far from hopeless, but to make progress in creating affordable housing will involve a leap over the institutional and psychological mechanisms that assign people to social categories. It’s not just the government that needs to change. It is society at large, as reflected in our media and in our acceptance of miserly public policies.

Homelessness, now in the spotlight in Kakaako, is but a symptom of this stratification. It shows that we have a kind of caste system at work that must be benefiting those privileged citizens a the top of the heap. As in other parts of the country, poverty is growing, and so is the affluence of those at the top. This doesn’t bode well for a cure in the near-term.

Hawaii is different, though. Although the word “aloha” has been stolen from Native Hawaiians and exploited for the benefit of the hospitality industry, it is still widely used and valued across the economic divide, perhaps influencing the psychological mechanisms of characterization and stratification.

Still, there is little contact between those at the top, who wield political power, and those living in economically-segregated neighborhoods. Does Hawaii Kai every come to Kalihi? The homeless encampment in Kakaako is clearly in danger because those living under expensive roofs or in luxury condos know little about the lives or living conditions of those in the encampment and could care less about their needs or what might befall them if the camp is bulldozed. Psychologically, those in the lower economic groups are often despised, never admired, and often stereotyped and scapegoated by those at the top of the heap.

This means there is no quick or obvious antidote to the structural and economic segregation prevalent in Honolulu. It will take work to bring about some measure of equality over time.

The bulldozing of the Kakaako encampment would not be pretty, and it would, in this age of social media, be very damaging to Honolulu’s reputation. We are already saddled with the image of a state legislator taking matters into his own hands by wielding a sledgehammer. It could get worse than that.

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(scenes from the movie Soylent Green)

So how about we work together on an alternative, one that reflects the uniqueness of the people of this state and the capacity of its citizens to bring about positive change.


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