By any other word these actions would still be the same — just call it racism Skip to content

By any other word these actions would still be the same — just call it racism

This is not your regular racism. There’s no nightriders, no dogs and hoses, no bombs going off in a church basement. This is the soft-core variety – influential White people lecturing Black folks on how it’s going down. Racism just the same.

Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

Let’s call this what it is – soft-core racism.

Over the past several sessions the Kentucky General Assembly has attracted a well-earned reputation for punching down on many of the constituencies it is reputed to represent. Last year it heaped abuse upon transgender kids, essentially laughing in the face of Sen. Karen Berg (D-Louisville), whose trans son committed suicide. Two years ago it placed unreasonable limits on women with unwanted pregnancies from getting abortions. And it is constantly scapegoating the Commonwealth’s teachers for poor student performance, ignoring its own hand in underfunding public schools, and now it’s looking to change the state constitution so it can send taxpayer’s money to private schools.

And then there’s African-Americans.

Kentucky, for all of its positive attributes, has never been renowned for spreading out the welcome mat for Black folks, unless, of course, they displayed the ability to dazzle on the basketball court. In 1956, former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler had to send the Kentucky National Guard to Sturgis and Clay to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring integration of the schools. Heck, schools in Fayette County, the state’s second largest, didn’t fully desegregate until forced by court order in 1971.

African-Americans have seen advances since those days, but they are still too often treated as second-class citizens. During the fourth quarter of 2023, the state’s unemployment rate was 4.3 percent, relatively low by historic standards. But dig in and you’ll find that unemployment for White folks was 3.3 percent and for Black folks it was 9.4 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no secret Kentucky is a relatively poor state. The situation is more dire if you’re black. Census data shows that 16.5 percent of White Kentuckians live in poverty, which obviously is too high. For Black Kentuckians the rate is 28.91 percent.

In other words, significantly more than one out of every four African-Americans live in poverty in Kentucky.

The details can be debated, but it’s obvious that Black Kentuckians, to a substantially greater degree than their White brethren, are victimized by poor education, underdeveloped neighborhoods, suffer discrimination because of the color of their skin and, most importantly, encounter a lack of opportunity to escape the cycle.

Given the history of overt racism, not just in Kentucky but the nation at large, running from slavery to Jim Crow to these days of police harassment and widespread disregard, it should come as no surprise that, generally speaking, Black folks are not privy to the same prospects as White folks, a situation sometimes characterized as White privilege.

So, what to do about it? Some educational institutions and businesses have established a framework called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), aimed at promoting victims of historical neglect and discrimination.

Basically, in abridged fashion, businesses recruit employees with an eye toward diversity, help them in the process, and make sure they have an opportunity to advance in their careers. On the college level a diversity office is generally there to offer support and make sure that students from neglected populations have the opportunity to succeed.

Now is as good a time as any to note that Black students aren’t the only ones that stand to benefit from DEI programs. People with physical and mental disabilities also are given support to meet their goals.

Now, given the nation’s racial history one would think providing individuals victimized by constantly being shoved to the back of the bus would be appropriate. Apparently not in Frankfort where the General Assembly is considering not one, not two, but three pieces of legislation bent on eroding DEI on state college campuses.

One measure, Senate Bill 6, has already passed the upper chamber and is in the hands of the House Education Committee. There’s a lot of gobbledygook in this particular measure, but it basically says certain DEI initiatives undertaken by any state university that promotes “discriminatory concept(s)” can lead to a cause of action by an “aggrieved” individual against the institution for damages and costs of no less than $1,000 and no more than $100,000 per violation.

But wait, that indecipherable morass apparently wasn’t terrible enough for the House Education Committee, which, on Thursday, according to Hannah Pinsky of the Courier Journal, reporting via X, gutted the godawful Senate bill and replaced it with a measure terribly worse, if such a thing can be imagined — a version of House Bill 9, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Decker (R-Waddy), which goes to extreme lengths to make sure Black Kentuckians know their place.

The measure, according to early reports, prohibits race-based scholarships to state universities, thus slamming the door on bright Black kids who might otherwise be unable to afford school, and the abolition of DEI offices altogether.

How nice.

“If education is to be the great equalizer in the Commonwealth, the opportunity to obtain a college degree in our state must be equally available and affordable to all,” Decker wrote in introducing the bill. “HB 9 would allow our universities and colleges to return their focus to providing Kentucky students with excellent academic instruction in an environment that fosters critical thinking through constructive dialogue.”

She forgot to say all that holds true as long as you’re not Black.

Decker, you may remember, is the dingbat who told a meeting of the Shelbyville chapter of the NAACP that her white father was once a slave for a white landowner. Yes, you read that right.

No matter how you slice it, the legislation is intended to incinerate DEI initiatives, logically resulting in harm to Black students trying to navigate unfamiliar terrain.

This is not virgin territory for the Kentucky General Assembly. Two years ago lawmakers were frothing at the mouth – in fact, it was Senate Bill 1 — to put the kibosh on any reference to Critical Race Theory in Commonwealth classrooms. CRT, as it is called, has not been taught in Kentucky classrooms to any great degree. It involves the concept that racism is built to a large degree into the nation’s laws and regulations. The lawmakers feared that a serious discussion of the issue might hurt the feelings of poor little White kids.

Now they’re looking to take down DEI. Sen. Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green), the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6, maintained that, “Instead of promoting intellectual dialogue, individualism, the content of one’s character, and merit-based practices, DEI has driven a wedge against those of us who want to see Kentucky achieve greater things.”

“Content of one’s character.” Man, they love to make those insipid references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., don’t they?

Just how offering enhanced opportunities to poor Black kids constitutes driving a wedge between this, that, or the other is certainly a curiosity. But Wilson’s logic, if that is what you want to call it, is Einstein-level genius compared to the detritus offered on the chamber floor by Sen. John Schickel (R-Union), who said, “We aren’t always for diversity” and that “it’s being thrown way out of proportion.”

“If I’m being wheeled into the emergency room to have brain surgery … do I look around at the brain surgery team and say ‘woah, is there diversity on this team?’” Schickel was quoted as saying in the Courier Journal. “No, I want the best darn team in there with the most expertise.”

Now, let us posit that DEI does not provide Black folks of any stripe a free pass into an emergency room, or an operating room, to perform brain surgery. DEI offers no provision that would permit African-Americans to skip years of study, an exhausting hospital internship, passing the requisite tests to gain a medical license and then gain the experience necessary to perform brain surgery. DEI does none of those things. It offers guidance and opportunity.

Does Sen. Schickel really believe DEI allows African-Americans to skate through unmolested? That White people are just born with this “expertise?” Black or White, they have to follow the same path into that emergency room, DEI or no DEI.

Sorry, but this is about the stupidest, and most demeaning, argument I’ve ever heard.

How’s this for an alternative: Young African-American girl, raised in a shotgun shack in the West End of Louisville, born into poverty, attending underachieving schools, working at a hamburger joint to support her family, is given the opportunity to expand her horizons, is provided the proper training, and she becomes a well-respected brain surgeon.

Then there’s the old argument, made by the likes of Chief Justice John Roberts, who maintains, “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Do people who mouth this silly platitude think that somehow the forces of poverty and poor education, pervasive in too many African-American communities, will suddenly and magically evaporate by simply declaring an end to discrimination based on race? That suddenly the massive poverty and unemployment rates that plague Black neighborhoods will disappear overnight without some official direction?

They constantly fail to acknowledge that many African-Americans start a 100-meter race 50 meters behind the other runners. Claiming all is equal just doesn’t make it so.

Did any of these folks, like Wilson, talk to Black folks before filing the legislation to get any idea about their experience, to try and understand what they go through on a daily basis?

It’s doubtful. We’ll just declare that discrimination is over and let it go at that.

Yeah, that’ll be good enough.

This is not your regular incidence of racism. There’s no nightriders, no dogs and hoses, no standing with an axe handle in front of a restaurant, no bombs going off in a church basement.

This is the soft-core variety, influential White people lecturing Black folks on how it’s going down.

Racism just the same.


Written by Bill Straub, a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Cross-posted from the NKY Tribune.

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