What are the racial inequalities in Kentucky? Chamber panel discusses the need for systemic change

The Kentucky Chamber recently hosted a panel of experts to discuss racial inequalities in Kentucky.

Kentucky Chamber president Nick Rowe started by accenting that, “as a chamber of commerce, we would like to be a part of the solution” addressing the need for systemic change in the Commonwealth. He mentioned hiring practices, income gaps, education, health status and the criminal justice system as key areas of inequality.

Watch the panel:

Education Gaps

Kentucky suffers from large disparities in terms of education including high school drop out rates, preparedness for higher education and the achievement gap.

Dr. OJ Oleka, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities, said it is much more difficult for Black families, particularly those in poverty, to navigate higher education institutions. Gaps remain for how to get to college or how to apply for college and college scholarships because Black families are left out of vital conversations.

“The good news is, Kentucky’s on the case,” said Oleka. “Independent colleges and universities have increased their underrepresented minorities by 50% over the last 10 years.”

Commitments to do better regarding racial inequality from Bellarmine University, Berea College, Georgetown College, Alice Lloyd College, Spalding University, and the University of Louisville are encouraging.

In addition to enrollment numbers, Sadiqa Reynolds, President and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, pointed to retention rates and ensuring underrepresented communities are supported.

“We need to make sure that young people are not disconnected,” said Reynolds highlighting how school systems need to act to ensure technology access so that students are not left behind or limited because of socio-economic status. She encouraged the business community to be active and involved with their local school systems to ensure support for students and teachers.

Workplace Inequality

Reynolds pushed business owners to talk about who has power at their organizations and act to ensure it reflects equal representation.

“What situation would be different if you had a different team advising you?” she asked, noting that the research has been done and data is available to see where disparities in leadership remain. “Put your money where your mouth is in your own space.”

Reynolds encouraged the business community to extend COVID-19 policies that help keep people alive like lowering insulin costs.

“All of this grows out of injustice and inequity,” said Reynolds. “African American people are overly represented in essential service jobs which is why we are so highly represented in death cases. We hold a significant portion of the jobs where you just can’t stay home.”

“I don’t know anybody who is interested in going back to what was normal,” said Reynolds. “Normal was not good enough for the people of the Urban League.”

Addressing Systemic Change

Many other racial disparities remain. Keturah Herron, a policy strategist with ACLU of Kentucky, pointed to the recent restoration of voter rights in Kentucky and a statewide re-entry coalition as positive change in the state’s criminal justice system. She said more attention is needed on juvenile justice and how the system treats young people of Kentucky.

“I challenge you to become second change employers,” Herron said of business leaders. “I challenge you to open your doors to folks who have a criminal background and to take the lead and help those who are formerly incarcerated to become business owners themselves.

Moving policy forward to target discrimination in housing and lending practices is a priority of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights. Executive Director Terrance Sullivan works to help eradicate the vestiges of racism in Kentucky through common sense policy ideas at work and through AntiRacism Kentucky, a coalition in partnership with Oleka.

“Be critical thinkers,” said Sullivan. “Think about how we can be more intentional about improving lives of people who have been targeted or who the laws were written against.”

That intentional approach to policy is needed to address these issues. Reynolds made a powerful comparison, noting that if you are not in a wheelchair or pushing a baby carriage, you probably won’t notice if a sidewalk has a slope for people who need it.

“You build the slope for people who don’t have the ability to walk, who cannot change the circumstances,” said Reynolds. “That’s what we need more of. We need to think about who needs what as we build this new world.”

— Rachel Nix

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