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The State of the Union and the Invisibility of Pacific Islanders

Even Hawaiian-born President Obama failed to mention Pacific Islanders in his list of diverse American communities. NHPIs are fighting to be seen.
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In his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama acknowledged his Hawaiian birth, and even listed a number of diverse American communities, including "Asians." His failure to specifically mention Pacific Islanders, however, coincides with a growing movement to give this community -- one of the fastest-growing in the nation -- greater visibility, and the services and support needed.

Since 2000, the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community in California alone grew by more than 30 percent to more than 340,000, according to a new report released today by EPIC (Empowering Pacific Islander Communities) and AAAJ (Asian Americans Advancing Justice).

The new data comes from disaggregated numbers from the more common umbrella terms that lump Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) with Asian Americans.

"Much of the data on this group is often collapsed into the Asian American, or Asian Pacific Islander category which renders NHPI invisible, particularly when trying to change public policy,” said Joanna Lee, demographer and co-author of the report, to NBC News.

The growth rate of NHPI in California is second only to Asian Americans (34 percent), but greater than the growth of Latinos (28 percent). The study found that NHPI have lower than average attainment rates for bachelor’s degrees, and are admitted to the University of California system at rates on par with underrepresented groups such as Latinos and African Americans.

The rates of health insured NHPI are lower than Latinos, and cancer is the fastest growing cause of death, outpacing the statewide numbers. Suicide deaths among NHPI have doubled.

In last night's address, the president noted that "for the first time in 40 years the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together.” But for NHPI in California, as the general community boomed, so did the inmate population - 192 percent since 2000.

“Many of things aren’t surprising to us,” said Tana Lepule, Executive Director of EPIC. “We knew about the high dropout rates, the high obesity rates, the high cancer rates anecdotally, now we know more.”