Cultural Differences and Discrimination: Samoans before a Public Housing Eviction Board

Richard O. Lempert, University of Michigan Law School
Karl Monsma, Northwestern University


In Hawaii Samoans are a stigmatized ethnic group. We examine how this group is treated by a public housing eviction board. Statistical analysis suggests Samoans are discriminated against in financial cases. Interviews indicate, however, that Samoans are disadvantaged largely because their excuses are not persuasive and would not be regardless of the ethnicity of the tenants making them. In this sense Samoans are treated "like any other tenant," and illegal discrimination, as defined by the Four- teenth Amendment, has not occurred. But Samoans make unpersuasive excuses more often than other tenants because excuses that are reasonable in the context of Sa- moan culture do not seem reasonable to judges from a different culture. Thus among tenants behind in their rent, Samoans fare worse than do non-Samoans, much as they might fare if board members held anti-Samoan prejudices. We call this implication of cultural hegemony "cultural discrimination" and note the dilemmas it poses, not the least of which is that it makes problematic the very concept of discrimination.