Friday, May 23, 2008

Why Hillary Clinton Slaughtered Barack Obama in Kentucky: A Black Man's Experience

by Dr. Boyce Watkins

In the writing of my book, “What if George Bush Were a Black Man?”, I spent a great deal of time talking about my experience growing up in Kentucky. Kentucky is nothing like the unfair stereotypes presented by Hollywood: images of hillbillies in straw hats, running moonshine on horseback with no shoes. However, when given a chance to defy stereotypes and prove that it has moved beyond its commitment to racism, the state usually fails with flying colors.

This week, Senator Barack Obama was pummeled in Kentucky by Senator Hillary Clinton. While voting against Obama is no proof of racism, the truth is that many voters admitted that they voted against Obama because he was black. Even Hillary knows this, as she continues to brag about how she has support among “hard working whites without a college degree.” Kentuckians do work hard, many of them are white and the state is one of the worst in the country when it comes to education. So, these must be Hillary Clinton’s kind of people.

Race still matters in Kentucky, a fact that throws itself in my face every time I return to my home state to give a speech. The last speech I gave at The University of Kentucky led to my not getting a handshake from the mayor, nor many other dignitaries who’d greeted me so graciously when I arrived. It wasn’t because I said anything radical: I simply noted (quite precisely I must admit) that the campus stated in 1990 that it would dramatically increase the presence of black faculty, and as of 2005, they’d had a net increase of 1. Not 1%, just 1. I wanted to tell the university that killing the messenger, while fitting with tradition, would be counter productive. Rather, they should kick themselves for not having the personal responsibility to keep their commitments.

I stated what much of Kentucky already understands: there is an equilibrium in which black people are second class citizens in Kentucky and when this equilibrium is violated, people get upset. There is an expectation of weakness, fear and silence among the black community in Kentucky, and my violation of the “Good negro behavior protocol” led to a backlash from those who “don’t want your kind round here”.

I love my state, but that is why I must be honest in my assessment.

I grew up in the school system in Kentucky, one that destroys the dreams of black children by the boat load, tossing them into classes for the learning disabled at dramatic rates and killing their dreams of going to college. I recall confronting the counselor of my god daughter, who tried to explain to me why “college isn’t for everyone”, while the kids at the suburban schools with equal intelligence are sent to the next level. What was most sad was that the counselor was black.

I went to college at The University of Kentucky, a campus that continues to make excuses for not hiring black faculty, yet is always able to somehow find the next great black basketball player. I once saw two pictures in the law school: one of the faculty, one of the janitorial staff. One of the pictures was 100% white, the other, 100% black.

I still have family in Kentucky, where black people truly know their place. The Kentucky Derby is not an event for everyone to celebrate at the track: it’s the day where most black people either clean up the horse crap or barbecue in their mama’s backyard.

People don’t get upset about the way things are in Kentucky, they are trained to accept it. High powered whites are the jockeys, and people of color are the horses. Any black person accepted into higher circles must be socially neutered in order to gain admission. No radical negroes are allowed in the country club.

Muhammad Ali was treated so poorly in the state of Kentucky that he refused to return for years. 12 years ago, when a black female student was attacked at The University of Kentucky in a racially-motivated incident, she claimed that campus administrators asked her to remain quiet because the basketball team had made it to the Final Four. You know, the whole bad publicity thing.

What is most ironic that I spent most of my time in Louisville and Lexington, two of the most socially-progressive cities in the state. It sort of goes down hill from there.

I had a mentor at The University of Kentucky, Tommy Whittler, the only black professor they’d tenured in the entire business school in their 130 year history. Tommy, and others, gave me good honest advice. They said, “Boyce, if you’re ever going to advance in this world, you have GOT to leave Kentucky.”

So, I left Kentucky and I advanced. I left that state for the same reasons that Senator Barack Obama never campaigned there in the first place. Now, I come home and everyone is afraid of me. That includes some of the black people, who may get upset that my honesty on racial equality is going to “get them into trouble.” It doesn’t matter if my words are true, it only matters that they are traumatic. But call me crazy, I still love my home state. That is why I want it to be cured of the disease of racism.

One thing I can say about the state of Kentucky is that the people are fundamentally good. The “country boy” who refuses to vote for a black presidential candidate is also the guy who will fix your car for free and allow his kids to play at your house. He cheers for the black guys on the University of Kentucky basketball team, even though he never thought about going to college. Ultimately, he represents the great paradox of Kentucky that creates racial inequality. Both the whites and the blacks are victims of this sickness.

I love my home state, and I would love to move back. But when I come home and see the same old oppression, I want to run for the airport. When I wrote my book about Kentucky and spoke of growing up there, I wrote from a position of intense pain.

The bluegrass state is beautiful, but it almost stole my dreams. Kentucky continues to be a dream killer for African Americans.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” He does regular commentary in national media, including CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and ESPN. For more information, please visit

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