Kentucky Commission Studying Racial Disparities Meets For First Time

Jul 21, 2021

Credit J. Tyler Franklin

Lawmakers say they’ll investigate racial disparities and come up with solutions in a new Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity that met for the first time on Tuesday.

The commission, made up of legislators and citizens, was created earlier this year in response to calls for racial justice reforms and months of protests across the state and nation.

But critics say the commission is another powerless task force that exemplifies the legislature’s inaction addressing racism.

Sen. David Givens, a Republican from Greensburg and co-chair of the panel, said arguments over racial justice protests last summer showed the need for structured conversations about race.

 “We had fellow Kentuckians suffering, and it frightened us to talk about it. And our legislative body is charged to do hard things. So here we are,” Givens said.

The 13-member commission has been tasked with studying “where disparities may exist” on issues like education, health, economic opportunity and criminal justice. It also seeks to “identify areas of improvement in providing services and opportunities for minority communities.”

Advocates criticized the panel earlier this year as two Black legislators—Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville and Sen. Reggie Thomas of Lexington—pulled their support after Republican sponsors removed the executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights from its membership and replaced him with a member of the Prosecutors Advisory Council.

Rep. George Brown, a Democrat from Lexington, said the commission has an opportunity to call attention to systemic racism.

“We have a charge I think as elected representatives to try to deal with those disparities that exist in our society and have existed since the formulation of this country,” Brown said.

The commission will meet monthly and hear from experts focusing on racial disparities. The members will write an annual report with recommendations for potential legislative action.

O.J. Oleka, a former Republican staffer and president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities, said he hopes the committee will study economic and educational disparities.

“I also want to find tangible, real solutions to move all Kentuckians forward. Some of which can be done by government, probably most won’t. But that’s ok, as long as those things are addressed,” Oleka said.

The commission’s next meeting will be Aug 18.