The Bluegrass State is in the news once again for all the wrong reasons. The latest is a controversial confrontation involving students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School on a school-sponsored trip to an anti-abortion march in Washington, D.C. Last weekend, a video appeared seemingly showing students surrounding and mocking Native American Nathan Phillips as he drummed and sang what he called Indigenous peace songs.
The students were quickly condemned. One student’s mother immediately claimed “black Muslims” (supposedly a group of Black Hebrew Israelites) had accosted the students and were the real villains. Nick Sandmann, a Covington Catholic student at the heart of the standoff, released a carefully crafted missive also absolving himself and his schoolmates of any culpability and pushed back against what he called a “mob-like character assassination of my family’s name.”
Later videos, indeed, show the Black Hebrew Israelites haranguing the students before Phillips appears. For their part, the Hebrew Israelites contend they did not start the verbal exchange — the students did. Others now even question Phillips’ account. By any measure, this is a story of contested truths mired in calcified sociopolitical sensibilities, and there will be no agreement. As usual, a number of important larger points are missed in such firestorms.
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First of all, this was an interesting field trip for students from a mostly white, all-male, privileged school. It is yet another example of the socialization of young American men to feel they have the right to control women’s bodies. It doesn’t stop there. Many of the students also wanted to be clear about their worldview beyond abortion by donning Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats. People certainly have a right to wear them, but, understandably, MAGA hats (and other apparel) are now seen by many as the wardrobe equivalent to waving Confederate flags — sending bright red, blaring messages of intolerance and insensitivity.
That said, whether the students were right, wrong or both — it is indisputable that this occasions another moment for many to once again see Kentucky as a place that teaches and cultivates 19th-century sensibilities in its children and exports adults who are more Cro-Magnon than cosmopolitan. Despite hurt feelings and protestations from natives, outside bourbon and basketball, Kentucky seems to be a long-confused and contradictory place from which very few desirable things emanate (this column notwithstanding, of course — and I’m not from Kentucky).
Kentucky has been stubbornly racist
The state is the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, but balanced that off by also birthing Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy. It chose no side in the Civil War, but claimed the Confederacy after the conflict ended. Kentucky has been stubbornly racist, though it denies it. Look no further than the fact that it refused to ratify the 13th Amendment until 1976 (the second-to-last state to do so, the final being Mississippi). A maddening percentage of whites in Kentucky are paternalistic and callous. An even greater percentage of blacks are passive and cowardly. They have been socialized to be so over many generations and both condemn “troublemaking outsiders.”
Kentucky repeatedly elects politicians like mean-spirited, mini-Trump Gov. Matt Bevin. It is proud of the vampiric Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose blood indeed seems to run cold. It produced James Alex Fields Jr., the white nationalist who killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. It is home to Gregory Alan Bush, who allegedly killed two black people in the Louisville Kroger race shootings in 2018. The state gave us Muhammad Ali, condemned him when he stood up and spoke, embraced him when he withered and couldn’t, and then buried him in a cemetery rife with Confederate statues and monuments. It’s an odd place.
So, yes, Kentucky is a proving ground for hate. It is a largely physically and intellectually fallow place presenting very few captivating possibilities … but so is America! Stereotyping and scapegoating places like Kentucky is easy. It makes the country’s supposedly “better, more advanced” folk outside the hinterlands feel good about themselves. The reality is that they shouldn’t, for Kentucky is America and America is Kentucky.
A ‘nasty’ reflection of the country
American hate and backwardness are not limited to the usual suspects — places like Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Arkansas. The truth is, the country has evolved (or devolved) into a science-fiction-like dystopian vision of the future where one can find a few bustling mega-cities peppered with anomalous safe zones surrounded by large, hostile tracks. These are inhabited by narrow, xenophobic and sometimes violent nationalists clinging to ideas of dead and dying worlds in which they were regarded as superior. There are very few progressive states — only ones that have a small number of desirable cities that also have intractable problems.
So, is Kentucky ground zero for American hate? Yes … and no. Kentucky is what it seems to be — a problematic petri dish growing some pretty repulsive fungi. It has a ton of work to do, but it’s not alone. It’s just a nasty little reflection of the entire country’s true face. The true ground zero is America itself.
Now, go sip on a little good Kentucky bourbon and think about that.
Ricky L. Jones is chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville and host of iHeart Media’s award-winning “Ricky Jones Show with 12 Mr. FTC” radio show and podcast. His next book is titled, “Colin, Confederates and Con-Artists.” This column first appeared in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. You can follow Jones on Twitter: @DrRickyLJones.