The white world of politics in Kentucky

In the very white world of Kentucky politics, race seldom is much of an issue.

In May, when Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for interfering with property rights, there was more outrage around the nation than in Kentucky. Paul remains ahead in most polls.

When Republican U.S. House nominee Garland "Andy" Barr recently was asked about his membership in Lexington's historically all-white Idle Hour Country Club, he offered no apology. His campaign noted Idle Hour recently admitted its first black member, former University of Kentucky and NBA basketball star Sam Bowie, so it's now racially integrated.

"Andy has supported and will continue to support increased diversity in all organizations he is a part of," said Barr campaign manager John Connell. Barr also is a board member of the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden in Lexington, which celebrates the history of Murphy and other black jockeys.

Barr's opponent, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, said he won't make Barr's club membership a campaign issue. Kentuckians don't dwell on such things, Chandler said.

"We've moved past all that, and we're in a better place now," said Chandler, who is white, as are Paul and Barr — and for that matter, everyone ever elected to federal or statewide office in Kentucky.

But 8 percent of Kentucky's population is black. This is a world where people are more conscious of racial discrimination in jobs and housing, of higher rates of poverty, unemployment, inadequate education and prison incarceration for blacks.

This is where black visitors aren't welcome in all private establishments. For example, the Kentucky Human Rights Commission in 2008 settled a complaint with an American Legion post in Franklin after it refused to allow a black television repairman onto the premises. Under the terms of the settlement, the post paid the repairman $6,500 and agreed to civil-rights compliance training.

Kentucky politicians don't address race because they don't think they need to, said University of Kentucky historian Gerald Smith, who writes and teaches about black life in the state.

Ninety percent of Kentucky is white, and especially in rural areas, whites tend to have limited contact with people of other races, Smith said. Kentuckians often aren't so much racist as racially oblivious, Smith said.

"There are many places in Kentucky where you can live and work and not ever see black people at all. The closest to black people they're going to get is watching UK basketball on television," Smith said.

Smith said he wasn't surprised that Paul's criticism of the Civil Rights Act did him little harm in Kentucky. A Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll in May found that one-third of Kentucky voters agreed with Paul, that businesses should get to decide whether to serve customers of different races.

"There are things that political candidates can say and do here in Kentucky that just wouldn't fly in other parts of the country," Smith said. "And at the same time, there are things they don't have to say or do."

Explaining differences

Osi Onyekwuluje is a conservative Republican lawyer and a former prosecutor in Bowling Green. Although he's black, he said he dislikes the way some black politicians, such as Jesse Jackson, inject race into everything. Politicians simply should run on the issues, Onyekwuluje said.

Onyekwuluje said that made it all the more frustrating when he campaigned in recent years for state and local offices and heard ugly rumors spread among voters.

Before they ever met Onyekwuluje, people said his name sounded weird. Obviously, they said, he wasn't white or a native Kentuckian. Was he a U.S. citizen? Was he African? If he was African, was he Muslim? If he was an African Muslim, did he pose a potential threat?

Suddenly the candidate who wanted to run on the issues had to spend his time explaining that yes, he is black, but he is a devout Christian and an American citizen.

He lost all of his elections.

"Of course race played a part," Onyekwuluje said last week.

"I had people come up and tell me that there's never been a black person win statewide office and it's never going to happen. That's shocking to me, in this century," he said. "Some people in Kentucky are still fighting the Civil War, and quite frankly, they don't think very much of blacks."

Not everyone agrees what's about race and what isn't.

At a Tea Party movement rally in Frankfort a week ago, vendors sold "Yup, I'm a racist" T-shirts (the vendors said the shirts were meant sarcastically, not literally) and a speaker decried "tolerance for the ghetto culture."

But Mica Sims, a Lexington Tea Party organizer, noted that two black people spoke at the rally.

"We overwhelmingly had a good turnout of minorities," Sims said.

Conservatives are unfairly accused of racism because they oppose the policies of President Barack Obama, who happens to be black, Sims said. They don't oppose him because he's black, she said.

"Honestly, I think Lexington would benefit from having more minorities in office," she said. "I think we could use a more diverse representation."

Vicious cycle

Kentucky does not elect black people to high office.

In the 2008 presidential primary, Kentucky Democrats overwhelmingly chose Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. In the general election, Kentucky backed John McCain over Obama.

The state's congressional delegation always has been white. More than half of the other states have sent at least one black lawmaker to Congress, including all of Kentucky's neighbors other than West Virginia and states with smaller black populations, such as Minnesota.

The state's constitutional officers — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor, state treasurer, secretary of state and agriculture commissioner — also always have been white.

Black politicians are scarce even in locally elected offices.

Seven of 138 General Assembly seats are held by blacks, or 5 percent, which does not reflect the 8 percent of Kentucky's population that is black. The legislature's leadership posts exclusively are held by whites.

According to a 2009 Secretary of State report, blacks represent 2 percent of the state's judges; less than 1 percent of its elected county leaders, such as judge-executive, magistrate, sheriff and county clerk; and 1 percent of its mayors.

There is a vicious cycle at work, said University of Louisville political scientist Laurie Rhodebeck, who studies voting behavior.

Blacks who come out of nowhere to run for high office are dismissed for a lack of experience, as evidenced in May by the dismal performance of Maurice Sweeney in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, Rhodebeck said. Sweeney, who is black, was a state worker and civic activist. The credible candidates in that race were the state's attorney general and lieutenant governor, she said.

But if blacks are unable to establish a foothold even in local politics, they'll never be seen as potential statewide leaders, she said.

"There is a career ladder that you slowly climb in politics," Rhodebeck said. "For people of color in Kentucky — and women, for that matter — it's hard to get onto the first rung."

Racism today

After Paul, the GOP Senate nominee, said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 overreached by requiring businesses to serve people of all races, his defenders said this simply was a "philosophical" point about an old, established law, having nothing to do with issues currently before Congress.

"He just needs to not take hypothetical questions," Kentucky Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said at the time.

There is nothing hypothetical about black people being denied service in Kentucky, said John Johnson, executive director of the state's Human Rights Commission, which enforces civil-rights laws.

In its 2009 report, the commission said it received 125 racial discrimination complaints regarding employment, housing and public accommodations over the previous year.

The majority of complaints could not be proven. But the commission took action in about 30 percent of its cases, usually reaching a settlement between parties or issuing a right-to-sue letter to the person who filed the complaint.

In the case of the American Legion post, where a black repairman was stopped at the door, the post responded to the commission by arguing that it's a private club and therefore exempt from civil-rights laws, Johnson said. That is incorrect, he added.

Officials at the post did not return a call last week seeking comment.

"We are continuously getting reports like that, even in this day and age," Johnson said.

"People who say they don't think about racism simply aren't confronted with it," he said. "But our elected officials should represent everyone. I realize that people don't want to discuss racism, but we can't just keep sticking our heads in the sand."