Affirmative Action Gone Haywire

When the media spotlight first hit Tiger Woods, he was black. A narrow adjective for a complex and variegated background.That Woods objected to the easy characterization showed that he'd navigated a personal identity crisis with sociological implications. But it didn't change the way things work. It didn't change the little census boxes that squeeze people into sometimes uncomfortable racial designations. Or ridiculous ones.Like the one Millie Peters checks off -- "Asian and Pacific Islander." She's one of the above, but you can't tell which by her name. Peters is, in fact, a Samoan who was raised in Hawaii and immigrated to Utah three years ago. She is a product of past generations of Samoans who once thought it prestigious to have a "haole" or Caucasian surname. To have light hair, fair complexions. "To give your children a better life," she says.Now, with a greater pride in heritage, all her paternal cousins have returned to their ancestral name -- Puefua. She stays Peters, although she might as well be Chung, according to the bureaucrats."We have nothing in common with Asians," Peters protests. "We're ocean people."But to Americans, the ocean is an all-encompassing body. "I think the reason we're lumped together is because of our location in the Pacific part of the world," says Lou Tong, director of the State Office of Asian Affairs. Tong, a born-and-raised Utahn, is of Chinese descent. China is a big country that does abut the Pacific Ocean. But despite laying historical claim to various other countries and even some islands like the Ryukyus, China has never much concerned itself with Samoa.In the United States, they might as well be the same country. Statistics on national origin, in fact, have very little to do with national origin. They have more to do with politics and, in some cases, poverty. They are the stuff from which grants are written and monies obtained.These statistics are the awkward remnants of an affirmative action movement gone haywire. The argument could be that if the United States truly strives to be color-blind, it should not continue to collect statistics on race.That, however, would be disastrous to the many minority populations who can prove some special need based on their numbers. In Utah, it's almost anyone's guess how many Pacific Islanders there are.Peters, who sits on the Polynesian Advisory Council, recalls the fallout from a request to the Department of Workforce Services. The council wanted to know how many Pacific Islanders were on welfare in Salt Lake County. "When the data came back, it came as Asian-Pacific Islander," Peters says. There were 555 getting Aid to Families with Dependent Children, 1,700 getting food stamps and 700 or so who qualified for Medicaid.Peters immediately claimed 80 percent for the Polynesians. An Asian representative took issue, saying at least 60 percent were Asian. No, said Peters, who came up with her unique population formula. "I said we have 80 percent because Asians are put into migrant programs immediately. Secondly, Asians make businesses and move up out of poverty."In contrast, Pacific Islanders largely work in the service sector and own family businesses that offer unskilled labor, according to University of Utah research by Carol Edison.Both Tong and Peters on occasion have employed the "church-attendance method" of population estimation. "You might say, we have eight churches and 16 wards," says Tong. "Then you figure so many people per ward, and then say maybe 20 percent don't go to church, so you add that many to the total."That may work better for Polynesians than most other races because of the strong ties to Mormonism. Mormon missionaries hit Tahiti as early as 1844, and Pacific Islanders began moving to Utah in 1875, Edison's research says. Integration has always been a problem. Early on, the church bought land for a mostly Hawaiian colony called Iosepa, 20 miles southeast of the Great Salt Lake. In 1915, when the LDS Church made plans to build a temple in Hawaii, the Polynesians were encouraged to return to the islands.A second wave of immigration began after World War II, bringing the Tongan and Samoan populations that make up the large majority of Pacific Islanders now.From her informal church surveys, Peters has concluded that up to 85 percent of the Pacific Islanders in Utah are Mormons, and that they have come to the state for a variety of reasons beyond religion -- a better life, the cost of living and the safety of the environment.But the exact numbers are still elusive. After the 1990 census, for instance, 3,904 Tongans were officially counted. Community leaders said it was more like 12,000. Peters figures there are now more than 25,000 Tongans of about 34,000 Polynesians in the state now. That's estimated to increase to 60,000 by 2002, while the Asian population will grow by 114 percent.Growing with different needs and expectations. Peters, for instance, is trying to get funding for Pacific Islanders from the Administration for Native Americans. Pacific Islanders qualify as Native Americans; Asians don't. "There's funding for community development, economic development, culture and arts -- it's very comprehensive. But they are very, very data-oriented," Peters says.And the data just hasn't been there. The state made a step toward divorcing the Asians and Pacific Islanders a few years ago by establishing the Office of Polynesian Affairs and putting Bill Afeaki in charge. Just recently, community activists, like Peters, asked the governor to break out the population data as well."I think it's a very important thing for the state to look at," says Tong. Schools, for instance, would be better able to target populations in need. "And, maybe, if you break it out and find one particular ethnic group having more problems than others, you'll find out why," says Tong. "And then maybe you'll service the problem."Right now, however, the problem is the data.


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