Friday, December 12, 2008


THEY CALL ME A DOG WHEN I’M DOWN: While the patronage system in Chicago is making national headlines, the thought of similar news reports on Kaua`i is almost laughable. As one friend said this week the FBI could make a cottage industry out of investigating the hiring practices of Kaua`i county government.

And as if to underscore the way the personnel decisions are made here we were left shaking our head at something that happened while taking care of personal business at a Kaua`i county office this week.

We’re not going to name the person involved because their name isn’t really important and they are but a cog in the machine. But we were surprised to see this county employee emerge to meet us, not from the usual clerk’s desk but from an office with “Assistant Manager” on the door.

“Oh- a promotion, eh?” we asked.

“No I’m doing two jobs right now because of retirements and others who have left... and of course no one is being hired right now because of the change in administration so the new mayor can get whoever he wants in these jobs.”

It’s not often that something actually leaves us speechless but the matter-of-fact way we were told- with a tone of voice saying “are you dumb; doesn’t everyone know that” just added to the tongue tying.

It’s one of those things that you know must be true but still is staggering hear out loud. It’s so entrenched in our local personnel department that the mayor, not merit, determines who gets the civil service jobs on Kaua`i that no one seems to care if everyone knows

Although of course the department heads are the ones who officially manipulate the system they are political appointees whose jobs depend on the good graces of the mayor so it’s likely that when they are told to hire “so and so” they do it.

It’s so engrained that they didn’t even wait to see if the new mayor might want to clean up the way people get jobs but just presumed that the system would continue under Bernard Carvalho the way is did under Maryanne Kusaka and Bryan Baptiste.

Will it ever change? Well that depends on whether the new county council follows up on the exposure of the system that started last year during the budgeting sessions.

That’s when a couple of councilmembers who are gone now- Mel Rapozo and Shaylene Iseri- Carvalho- finally got fed up with funding or even creating a skilled position at the behest of a department head only to find that that job was never filled and the money for it was used to fill another less skilled personnel slot.

One of the things that Rapozo and Iseri put into last year’s budget ordinance was a measure that requires the Department of Personnel Services (DPS) to notify the council of all changes when jobs go though what they call “downward relocation to entry level”,

We described how it really works after an astounding council meeting took place on Sept. 10.

What apparently occurs is that handpicked, unskilled but connected people are given civil service jobs that were appropriated to accomplish tasks that require skilled experienced people..

The “merit system” calls for promoting qualified people already working for the county if they exist and if not going “outside” and taking applications and actually hiring someone to do the job that they told the council needed doing when they asked for the money.

But it is rare that these jobs are ever advertised at all. Instead DPS takes the newly appropriated job slot and changes it to an entry level position in order to hire whomever the department head wants... usually at the “request” of the mayor.

Mel and Shaylene were just beginning to uncover and expose the system last fall but it’s anyone’s guess how the new council will handle it.... but we’re not holding our breath.

Much has been said both here and on other local blogs as to the apparent racial aspects to the hiring and firing practices that are exposed in many ways in the book KPD Blue.

Many see the blatant race bias in the county’s hiring practices and call it racism. But others question whether the race bias in local hiring can be called racism in what is essentially the wider “white privilege” of American society.

As we’ve said before there is a difference between race bias and racism. Race bias happens when someone simply doesn’t like people of another race. Often it’s expressed when actions are taken to deny a person their rights. When it’s done in hiring or public accommodation or other select areas, it is illegal.

But there is also real racISM that is not as easy to regulate. It confers privilege to those having white skin and confers benefits in daily life that may not seem to exist for those who have the privilege but is overtly obvious to those who aren’t a member of that group.

It expresses itself in things from racial profiling to even less overtly obvious acts that suppress and oppress non-whites often forcing them into less advantageous socioeconomic groups.

It doesn’t take a group of people practicing race bias to create an institution that confers white privilege on the members. Protestations of “I am not a racist” from individual members a group of whites that systematically excludes non-whites -whether consciously or not- doesn’t change the effective racism of the institution they belong to and are therefore responsible for..

The question many ask is whether the hiring practices at the county amount to a form of “brown privilege” in the very limited circle of county government. (We use the term brown-privilege” as a contrivance to mean non-white and not to exclude any group that doesn’t present a skin pigment that isn’t of European descent, whether African, Asian Latino, Native American/Pacific Islander or any other).

We can’t forget that this local system serves a larger white privileged power structure imposed by generations of white missionaries, sugar growers, developers, the military and others who in a larger sense “run” this island and state no matter who serves them.

And it can be said that a system such as the one of patronage-in-the-extreme on Kaua`i -whether race based on not- can make for a severely incompetent work force, one which is easy to surpress and control and serves the white power structure very well in many ways.

But many who say it’s impossible to have any real “brown privilege” in a white privileged society- a prevalent line of reasoning in academia and intellectual circles when discussing race- say that the system on Kaua`i is but one of provincialism and geocentric discrimination that centers it benefits on those who are born and raised here, especially with multi-generational roots

And, they say, that population just happens to be primarily non-white on Kaua`i.

But isn’t that the same thing that’s been said for a century when mainland institutions oppress non-whites. “It not that they are (fill-in-the-blank)” they say ”it’s just that they aren’t “one of ‘us’ here in Podunk”.

And certainly if you take your nose out of the “trees” of downtown Lihu`e and look at the “forest” of the island as a whole, even though whites are technically a minority none are lacking for job or economic opportunity because they are white.

As a matter of fact they have much of the same privilege they have on the mainland because the whole financial and wider “plantation mentality” political system here is still white controlled.

We don’t pretend to know the answer as to whether this “brown privilege” that some- like KPD Blue author Tony Sommer- see is a valid concept.

While it probably depends on your definition of racism, in the context of the wider circle of our society both on the mainland and here the answer is seemingly no.

But tell that to someone who has been told they can’t have a government job because of a bias against their skin color and you might not get the agreement that we intellectuals and academics seek.

1 comment:

Katy said...

Andy, Thanks for tackling a nuanced question like this so thoughtfully.

I think that even academics and intellectuals acknowledge that white people are not the only ones who can create and perpetuate oppressive systems, but I also think that to pretend that this fact somehow nullifies white privilege in our society is disingenuous. (I'm not suggesting that's what you're saying, by the way.)

The danger in white people freaking out about what they deem to be "brown privilege" is that there is a tendency to use that claim as a dodge for responsibility for dismantling white privilege, and more insiduously, as a justification for further entrenching systems of white privilege and dismantling efforts to create equity.

An indicator of this intention is when white people complain about "reverse racism" and portray themselves as victims of it.

Very seldom does a white person who claims to be concerned about "brown privilege" in Hawai'i seem to be thinking primarily about how a neocolonial model, in which some descendents of immigrant workers of color have risen to positions of political and economic influence, is utilized for the purpose of wiping out Native populations and cementing US hegemony on stolen land.

If THAT were Tony's argument, I'd be halfway inclined to lend an ear.