More Trouble at My Old Kentucky Home
The University of Kentucky community is reeling once more after another shameful incident on campus, which calls attention (yet again) to our institution’s horrid record of racial equality. Early this morning UK police discovered an effigy of Barack Obama hanging on a tree near Rose Street and the William T. Young Library. Within hours, the national media located this story, which it sees as yet another unfortunate instance of an effigy-prank that tests the line where free speech turns into hate crime. The U.S. has witnessed effigies of Sarah Palin and John McCain in recent weeks as well, and we still have one more week left in the presidential campaign (not to mention at least four more years of the Obama administration ahead of us). Here at UK, though, we can’t slide this issue under the rug any longer.
UK President Lee Todd, Jr. released an e mail to the campus in which he called the act “deplorable” and “disgusting.” Then, in a news conference, he said that “We’ve done many, many things to increase diversity [and] I know this is not a reflection of this institution.” Sadly, this might be wishful thinking by Todd. A long series of incidents proves otherwise.
Clearly racism is part of the institutional culture at the University of Kentucky because events like this seem to happen almost every year. Perhaps this incident will, finally, force UK to confront its vexed relationship to racial diversity. For those interested, the UK Interfaith Dialogue Organization will hold a forum tonight (Oct.29) at Memorial Hall.
Yet, contrary to what Todd would have us believe, this incident does not occur out of a vacuum. A year ago, Kernel cartoonist Brad Fletcher attempted to critique the systematically unequal system of Greek life at UK. His poorly executed attempt outraged many students, yet whatever substantive dialogue that began to emerge quickly subsided in the wake of UK’s stunning victory over the eventual NCAA football champion LSU Tigers. The constructive force of this racially-charged incident dissipated rapidly into inane debates about whether or not Fletcher’s cartoon was racist. This is the quintessence of what James Agee would call fatal misunderstanding.
A less-publicized series of events also took place last fall. In one of them, a black student had the words ‘Die Nigger’ carved into the door of his dorm room, a racially hateful act that led UK alum Dr. Boyce Watkins to visit campus and address this event. Dr. Watkins’s insight on the matter is extremely valuable. As he remembers it, the university has been making promises for at least 30 years to increase the number of black faculty it employs. There hasn’t been a meaningful increase. As of 2005, UK, the major land grant institution of our Commonwealth, had an 88 percent white student body. That figure has improved, but not drastically. For Watkins, the institution of the university is “fundamentally racist.”
Why do these incidents keep happening at the University of Kentucky? Is it because we educate a state where three out of five people agree with the statement “black people would be as successful as white people if they just tried harder” (according to one recent poll)? Or, is it because this institution fails to acknowledge the ways it upholds the status quo of racial separation? The same community that uncritically sings “My Old Kentucky Home” before each football game may not be in a position to repudiate its problematic past.
We shouldn’t let President Todd, or anyone else, off the hook for insisting that the effigy incident is not a true reflection of our institution.