Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Barry Obama and the Hawaii’s Multi-Ethnic Economic Transformation

Posted on | November 4, 2012 | No Comments

I use President Barack Obama’s high school name, “Barry,” to mark the specific time period I want to refer to in this post. He returned from Indonesia in 1971 and lived in Honolulu until he graduated from Punahou High School in 1979. During that time, he would have been exposed to an extraordinary political transformation in the 50th state, the election of the first Asian-American to the position of a US Governor, and the socio-economic elevation of several ethnic groups from migrant workers to middle class.

Often overlooked in discussions about the President, his operational temperament, and his political agenda are the news and current events that occurred during Obama’s time in Hawaii, particularly the rise of the Democratic Party and how it empowered several ethnic groups to elevate their socio-economic standing.

Barry Obama would have come to political consciousness during the admininstration of George Ariyoshi, who Governor Ariyoshiserved from 1974 to 1986 as the third Governor of Hawaii. Ariyoshi’s “Quiet but Effective” campaign theme hit the appropriate passive-aggressive tone needed to work the complex ethnic coalitions that characterized Hawaii’s political sphere. Obama would have witnessed a social revolution where Asian-Americans, most of whom came from families of immigrants who worked the pineapple and sugar plantations, strove to improve their class status and well-being through hard work, personal savings, and education.[1]

I wouldn’t presume to provide a comprehensive account of the President’s worldview and what motivates his actions; I can, however, speak to some of his environmental influences, having lived in Anthony J. PenningsHawaii during his senior year and a block away from his high school and within walking distance to his grandmother’s house. I also got my PhD through the same scholarship program at the East-West Center as his mother, although it was some 15 years after her. I even developed my distaste for a particular brand of ice cream at the store where Barry worked scooping out cones and cups.

In 1962, the Democratic Party in Hawaii took power from the Republicans, whose political lineage traces back to overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. Territorial Governor William F. Quinn won the first election after the Hawaiian Islands achieved US statehood on March 12, 1959. But by 1964, the Democrats had two Japanese-American Senators in Washington DC and obtained solid control over the political machinations of Hawaii under the direction of policeman-turned-politician Gov. John A. Burns.

Initially more focused on Hawaiian affairs, the Democratic Party turned its attention towards the Asian populations, particularly courting the affections of the Japanese-American World War daninouyeII veterans, including the late Senator Masayuki “Spark” Matsunaga and the recently deceased Senator Daniel Inouye. Both had been injured in the European theater fighting with the highly decorated 442nd Regiment of the US Army and both later received the Medal of Honor for bravery in the battlefield. Asian-Americans were initially blocked from many of the corporate jobs occupied mainly by Caucasians, so Japanese-Americans in particular, began to move into government positions, especially education.

The Hawaiian economy grew rapidly with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the transpacific telegraph and telephone cables, communication satellites, and the use of jet aircraft for transportation and tourism. Tourism fueled construction as hotels sprung up on all the major islands. It also meant a lot of small businesses to cater to tourists. As the economic pie expanded, it opened up new opportunities throughout the state economy for the second and third generations of the workers who had previously tilled the plantation farms.[2]

Hawaii’s Democratic party developed a fairly conservative approach to politics, characterized by respect for education and government. It wasn’t afraid to use bureaucracy to achieve its goals but it recognized the importance of fiscal restraint, in part to mimic the Asian strategy of development that was working so effectively in places like Japan and Singapore. Also, because it was a “fragile” and geographically isolated set of islands with a rapidly growing population.

While I can only conjecture about the connections and decisions he made, by the time he graduated from high school in the late 1970s, Barack Obama would have witnessed an extraordinarily American social movement. It advanced a coalition of Chinese, Hawaiian, Filipino, Korean, and Japanese-Americans into a multi-ethnic power structure that propelled itself into middle-class legitimacy through political action.[3]


[1] Political scientist Michael Haas has edited Barack Obama, The Aloha Zen President: How a Son of the 50th State May … and written Mr. Calm and Effective: Evaluating the Presidency of Barack Obama.
[2] The Economic History of Hawai‘i: A Short Introduction by Sumner LaCroix.
[3] The Democratic Party kept its hold on the reigns of Hawaii’s governorship until Linda Lingle, a Jewish-American woman from Maui won election in 2002.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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