Kentucky’s GOP legislature has a racism problem Skip to content

Kentucky’s GOP legislature has a racism problem

Look at the bills that passed, and the ones that didn’t. Then listen to the comments on the floor. It’s clear what is driving some of this year’s GOP legislation.

6 min read
Republican lawmakers and the families of crime victims join GOP Secretary of State Michael Adams for a ceremonial signing of the omnibus crime bill, House Bill 5. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

If there is a photo that defines Kentucky’s 2024 regular session, it is a smiling Secretary of State Michael Adams signing House Bill 5 — a sprawling, data-questionable, pro-incarceration bill with an unknown, sky’s-the-limit budget, overriding the governor’s veto — in the capitol rotunda, surrounded by more than two dozen applauding supporters and lawmakers. All white.

Adams quipped, “I feel safer already!”

A few days earlier, I had been speaking at a dinner about frustrations with our GOP supermajority legislature on HB 5 and failed firearm legislation when a Black man in the audience asked about the Crown Act.

Could I explain this to the audience? he wanted to know.

I tried, twice, and realized I could not.

Not logically.

How do you logically explain the outright dismissal of a bill that would allow Black people and marginalized others to wear their natural hair, the hair God gave them, in the workplace?

What stands out to me, now that the 2024 regular session has come to a close, is not the many faceted and cruel HB 5, which stole much of the spotlight. What stands out to me is the consistent, ugly undercurrent of racism.

Some of that racism was big and bold and overt, like Senate Bill 6 and House Bill 9 which aimed to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion — DEI — in our education system, but there were others that poisoned the Frankfort drinking water, too.

House Bill 18, for instance, passed with a veto override, keeping landlords from having to accept Section 8 housing vouchers. Discrimination based on source of income.

I will not soon forget watching the bill sponsor, Rep. Ryan Dotson, on the House floor as he presented his bill, growing frustrated to the point of snarling and raising his voice as Rep. Sarah Stalker dared to ask the most basic questions about his overtly discriminatory bill.

State Rep. Ryan Dotson answering questions about his bill to keep landlords from having to accept Section 8 housing vouchers. (Screen shot courtesy of Kentucky Educational TV)

To say Dotson was snarling is not an exaggeration. I watched it live, and it was so shocking in the moment I took a screenshot and paused as House Speaker David Osborne stopped him, advising caution.

While Rep. Jennifer Decker’s anti-DEI House Bill 9 failed to pass, who can forget the story of her telling an NAACP audience that her white father was a slave. “So, if you’re asking, did we own slaves? My father was a slave, just to a white man and he was white.” And then she doubled down on the claim when asked to explain.

Many bills are filed every session, assigned to committees, and never see the light of day. But notably this year, of the hundreds of bills filed, only two did not receive a committee assignment.

One was Sen. David Yates’s abortion exceptions bill. No surprise there, with a GOP supermajority who can’t decide if it’s politically expedient to allow exceptions or not.

The other was Sen. Gerald Neal’s proposed Crown Act, “which would have outlawed discrimination on the basis of a hairstyle historically associated with a person’s race.”

Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield, who will leave office at the end of this year, recently told WKYT’s Bill Bryant about HB 5, “We are doing things that are shortsighted, very expensive, and don’t have a return on investment that actually improve public safety.”

Westerfield, who is white, has also sponsored a version of the Crown Act, twice, this year and last, telling Bryant, “Last year when I filed the bill, I think there were 18 no votes in my caucus” and yet even after robust discussion and filing amendments to address concerns, he got no traction, going “from 18 no votes to 17 no votes.”

He went on to explain the damage, both physical (due to chemicals) and mental. “Harm is being done just so that Black men and women, particularly Black women, can look more like the Euro-centric, white woman look, and they’ve been punished for that. Black men have been punished for not looking more like this,” Westerfield said, pointing to his hair. “The hair God gave you ought to be the hair you get to wear … and why there’s not more support for that, I’ll never understand.”

I don’t understand either.

But in an attempt to understand, I went back to the 2023 committee discussion of Westerfield’s Crown Act / Senate Bill 63, relating to discriminatory practices against a person. What follows is Sen. Phillip Wheeler’s questioning in that committee.

“You say this applies to everybody, right?” said Wheeler. “So if my secretary decided to come in tomorrow with a pink, spiked [hair]do into the office, and wearing a shirt that says “F.U.,” and I know my secretary would never do that, but if she did, could I say this is not the image I want to present for my business? You need to come in with, you know, a more traditional look, and a professional look, similar to the dress code that we adopted on the senate floor?”

Westerfield responded that an employer can certainly impose an office dress code, but that this is not germane to the bill, which specifically protects hairstyles “historically associated with race.”

This prompted Wheeler to say, “I guess if she had Irish heritage, and if you’ve ever watched the movie “Druids,” there’s some pretty wild [hair]do’s, so she could come in there and argue something like that” and then “I guess if you had an African-American working there, that would probably imply that you didn’t have a problem with African-Americans working there just by the fact that they’re present, would it not?”

Wheeler’s legislative bio states that he is a Christian, an attorney, and a Fulbright Scholar. And yet his convoluted argument — which I watched four times to ensure accuracy in quoting him — was like watching a mosquito ride a tricycle in a hailstorm.

I watched one more time and gave up.

In an April 15 report upon the close of session, Senate President Robert Stivers was asked about DEI and replied: “I know some people (don’t) like to report this, but I think this caucus has been very good about being race neutral. What we seek, and what some people don’t want to portray us as, is ‘treat everybody fairly.’ ”

So let’s talk about popular perceptions and how those perceptions come to be.

There is that photo of power — celebrating HB 5, a pro-incarceration bill resurrected from the ashes of discrimination and bad ideas of the 1990s — on the steps of the Capitol Rotunda, where the statue of Jefferson Davis was only recently removed.

There was Rep. Jason Nemes (who is white) ranting in anger at Rep. Derrick Graham (who is Black) for daring to tell the truth on the House floor: that the Jefferson Davis statue was “taken out for a reason,” that being that he led the Confederacy and the “insurrection taking place when the Civil War started.”

There were bills in both chambers — one wasn’t enough? — to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion in education.

There was housing discrimination.

There was funding for university building projects, except for Kentucky State University, the state’s only historically Black public college.

There is a newly-created task force to see if Jefferson County Public Schools should be “broken up.”

And there were bills that could not get to the floor that would allow — ALLOW — Black people to wear their own hair.

I wonder if anyone has ever told Senate President Stivers he could not “wear his own hair” to the office.

To the Black man who asked me to explain the failure of the Crown Act two years running, I still have no logical explanation. This is what systemic racism is, and there is no logic to it. There is just willful ignorance and fear and control and, in our GOP supermajority legislature, continued denial.

I can’t explain it.

I can’t excuse it either.

And no bill, no matter how sprawling or expensive or punitive, is going to make us “safer already” until we address it.

It’s right there in the Frankfort drinking water, poisoning all of us.


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Teri Carter

Teri Carter writes about rural Kentucky politics for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Washington Post, and The Daily Yonder. She lives in Anderson County.