To Kentucky, With Love
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
I was all set to do an interview on a radio station in Kentucky to promote my forthcoming book, An Unintentional Accomplice: A Personal Perspective on White Responsibility when the host canceled it. They said they just couldn’t do the interview with me. They had hoped for a useful discussion about Covid-19 and the racial impact, but the more they read about my ideas on white guilt and white privilege in my book, they just didn’t think it was a discussion they were interested in having.
I was looking forward to this interview. My Baker forebears had arrived in southeastern Kentucky from North Carolina in the early 1800s and stayed for generations. The family lore is steeped in pride and family revenge (The Baker-White Wars). I remember stories from my grandfather, Silas Wilson Baker, about how one could set the creek on fire in Burning Springs, his birthplace in 1877. The Appalachian qualities of self-reliance, reliability, and courage are part of my rugged individualist heritage. As was the type of poverty people didn’t even know existed until President Lyndon B. Johnson declared from Tommy Fletcher's front yard in Inez, "I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory."
Given my family background, I had anticipated push back from some white people in Kentucky concerning the concepts of white guilt and white privilege. I had wanted to empathetically explore, as a friend of Kentucky, how it is that poor white people experience poverty differently than poor black people. How it was I came to understand the different categories of privilege – citizenship, gender, skin color, able-bodied, sexual orientation – into which one is simply born. And how these categories of privilege meant some people had to work a lot harder than me to accomplish the same thing.
So, I was saddened to hear this was not a conversation the host was interested in having. But I could empathize with the citizens of a state whose natural riches and beauty had been raped by greedy timber, coal, salt, and railroad barons, leaving nothing for its families except aching hardship and loss. I could understand the hatred and exclusion bred by generations of murderous family feuds, since the before the Civil War, running strong and deep. I felt despair at the brutal conditions that left impoverished widows alone to dig rows of graves for their children. And I felt anger at the corruption that has led, in more contemporary times, to Kentuckians saying, with a measure of acceptance, “Thank God for Alabama,” sparing them the shame of being ranked last in overall health, the poverty rate, educational achievement, and life expectancy in the U.S.
And then my thoughts settled on other mothers: Mamie Till, how in the midst of her own grief, made me look into the open casket at the face of her son Emmett so that I could see what racial hatred had done; and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, saying she had to do something to help other mothers who, like her, had lost their children to violence; and countless other mothers calling me to confront rather than withdraw from the realities of racism and classism. These mothers insist I look into the faces of their lost children and help to bring change.
So while I at first felt put down by the canceled interview, the experience is empowering me to see that conversely, I’m not interested in discussing the socioeconomic and healthcare disparities present to this pandemic without also discussing the power and policies at their root. When President Johnson envisioned a "Great Society" and enacted the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, a variety of community-based anti-poverty programs were launched. Yet at the same time, the regulatory practices, labor and wage policies, and tax structure ensured the distinct winners and losers would remain perpetually the same. The irony of this was best described by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he said , “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Policy changes over the past seventy years have continually whittled away the social safety net. Racism and classism have broken the country’s social compact and stunted the development of nearly every institution crucial for a healthy society. This includes organized labor, public education, wage and hour standards, and job-based health and retirement security. The American economic system as a whole was established and built upon profit produced on the backs of people of color and the poor. The responsibility for confronting the relentless power and policies that cause and extend these socioeconomic injustices is collective, not individual.
Some might say I simply have a firm grasp of the obvious, that this has been right in front of my face my whole life. I couldn’t agree more. It’s time to listen to people who have been talking about these disparities for a very long time. Beyond the moral imperative, it’s time to realize all our lives are at stake, as a species. Let’s not let this crisis go by without re-imagining systems that work for all Americans, regardless of race, class, or ethnicity. Now is the opportune moment to create pathways out of the violence of racism and classism. This is a discussion we must all engage in today.
Carolyn L. Baker, M.Ed. is the author of An Unintentional Accomplice: A Personal Perspective on White Responsibility who grew up in segregated Southern California and came of age in the counter-cultural 1960s. www.anunintentionalaccomplice.com