May 27, 2008

Race and the presidential race: Did 20 percent of Kentucky really just say it hates black people?

Results
from the Democratic Presidential Primary last week offered little
surprise: Sen. Barack Obama won Oregon and Sen. Hillary Clinton won
Kentucky. But the national press coverage trumpeted an exit poll that
showed 21 percent of Kentucky voters admitted race was an important
factor in their decision, leaving behind a lingering, brutal
question: What’s the matter with Kentucky?

Racially,
Kentucky and Oregon are pretty much the same — porcelain. According
to the U.S. Census Bureau, both have white populations well over 85
percent.

“We’re
less diverse than Kentucky,” said Meredith Woodsmith, chairwoman
for the Democratic Party of Oregon. In a telephone interview with
LEO, Woodsmith said that Obama did well among Oregonians for two main
reasons. The first, she said, was George W. Bush. The president
received his lowest approval ratings in that state. Oregonians eager
to escape the Bush years quickly embraced Obama’s change mantra.
Second was Oregon’s antiwar movement. Early in the campaign,
Oregonians against the war never forgot or forgave Clinton for her
stubborn unwillingness to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the
war in Iraq.
Raised
in Versailles, Ky., Woodsmith graduated from the University of
Kentucky in 1965 before moving westward. She has lived in the Beaver
State for the past 35 years, and said, unlike Kentucky, which has an
enclosed Southern culture, Oregonians are fiercely independent and
open-minded, with a willingness to try new ideas.

“We
are more progressive than Kentucky,” Woodsmith said.
Election
results from Oregon reveal the race was muted. The same exit poll
that embarrassed much of Kentucky showed that only one in 10
Oregonians said race was a factor. Obama beat Clinton among white
voters there by 15 points.

Still,
Obama’s victory may not say much about Oregon’s supposed racial
progressivism. At 7 percent, Kentucky’s African-American population
is still more than four times higher than that of Oregon. It’s much
easier for race to be insignificant when little more than 1 percent
of the population is African-American.

Jennifer
Moore, chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, questions the
legitimacy and accuracy of the exit interviews.

“I
don’t know where those exit polls were conducted,” Moore told
LEO. She said she believes the national media found a convenient
scapegoat for its narrative and maligned Kentucky as racist instead
of examining the ground activity of both campaigns. Clinton’s
overwhelming victory, Moore said, was due to her familiarity and
connection with Bluegrass voters. Along with separate campaign stops
by her husband and daughter, Clinton campaigned throughout Kentucky.

Moore
said she wishes Obama had done the same.

“I
wish he had been here every day. You’ve got to go to other areas of
the state (than Louisville),” Moore said.

“There
was no way Obama could win in Kentucky,” said Osi Onyekwaluje, a
lawyer from Bowling Green who ran as a Republican candidate for state
auditor in 2003. Onyekwaluje dismisses the argument that Obama’s
defeat was related to his lack of personal visits to more rural parts
of the state. Though Obama and his wife, Michelle, made only a
handful of appearances in the biggest cities, the Obama campaign had
more than 16 offices with hundreds of staffers across Kentucky,
outnumbering Clinton.

“It’s
not because Obama didn’t come here,” Onyekwaluje said. “That’s
a bunch of horse manure. These folks had already made up their minds.
Kentucky just hates to be called out.”
As
one of the few blacks to run for statewide office, Onyekwaluje said
he knows firsthand the visceral racism expressed by many Kentucky
voters. He said that at the moment, Kentucky could not elect an
African-American to any statewide position. What makes matters worse
is that leaders in both state parties, he said, are unwilling to
address the problem.

Raoul
Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP, agreed, saying he was
especially disappointed with Gov. Steve Beshear.
“The
governor glossed over it and acted as if he didn’t want to deal
with it,” Cunningham told LEO. Democrats especially, Cunningham
said, ought to be mindful about the message sent to African-American
voters, who have been the party’s bedrock. “It speaks volumes
about the state.”
LEO
left several messages requesting comment from the Governor’s
office; they did not call back by press time.

Jonathan
Hurst, Kentucky director of Hillary for President, tried to stave off
claims that Clinton supporters are racist. He said that people are
trying to rob Clinton of a legitimate victory by citing a concocted
poll. Clinton earned Kentucky after putting time and energy into a
state that Obama neglected: “If Sen. Obama had committed more time,
he would have preformed better.”

Both
campaigns deny race
was a factor in Clinton’s victory here.

“Sen.
Obama has said if he’s not successful it’s not because of race
but because he hasn’t articulated his message,” said Sean Smith,
communications director with the Obama campaign in Kentucky. Smith
also noted Clinton’s big lead and familiarity with voters as key
factors.

Since
winning Iowa in January, the Obama campaign has demonstrated an
uncanny ability to take states where he was a relative unknown. Why
not Kentucky? The argument that he was too far behind in polls does
not fit well with the Obama campaign’s incessant hope-mongering.

Smith’s
comments do represent Obama’s racial tightrope. Unlike Clinton, who
recently blamed sexism to explain some of her difficulties, Obama
rarely cites race as a barrier. By not speaking to the race-based
vote in Kentucky, Obama may have embraced what some say is the silent
covenant of the Kentucky Democratic Party: Bury the race problem.

For
some African Americans living in Kentucky, the national exit polls
were a familiar reminder.
“It
lets me know little has changed,” said Shaunitra Wisdom, 29, a
program assistant at the University of Louisville Music School.
Wisdom said for many young African Americans, the election punctuates
their exodus. “A lot of people are trying to get out of (Kentucky)
as fast as they can.”
Obama,
it seems, was thinking the same.

Contact
the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com

When the world ends, I want to be in Kentucky...

By jamessye

because it’s always 20 years behind the times… I think that was Mark Twain who put that so frankly... Seriously, I graduated from the University of Louisville in 2003, and I got the hell on... The mentality of people in the state is that of a fat kid being happy when he gets a free cheeseburger in other words a lot of people settle for less and expect less, therefore, they get less. I was once told that the city was on the same track as Atlanta, GA by a well respected individual in the state of Kentucky, but out of unwillingness to progress it veered away from that path many years ago, and you guessed it, settled for less.

Sometimes it takes big events for things to be brought to the light, but in the state of Kentucky things won't change no matter how many attempts by people that want them to. Some say it's a defeatess attitude, but it's just looking @ things logically and moving forward somewhere else, where people embrace new ideas and are a little more progressive in their overall mentality about life.