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University of Kentucky Trying to Defend Image After Racially Charged Cartoon, Death Threat


A Southern university is trying to defend its image after the student newspaper published a cartoon of a black man being sold at auction and a racist death threat was scribbled on the door of a black student leader’s dorm room.

Earlier this month, the cartoon in the University of Kentucky’s newspaper, the Kernel, sparked peaceful protests around campus. It showed a black student, bare-chested and chained, being auctioned off among three fictional fraternities: Aryan Omega, Kappa Kappa Kappa and Alpha Caucasian.

Just when the furor was starting to die down, a junior recently elected as “Mr. Black University of Kentucky” returned to his residence hall to find his door vandalized with the message: “Die,” followed by a racial slur.

University officials condemned the cartoon and the threat, and President Lee Todd spoke Thursday to the state’s Commission on Human Rights, which held a special meeting on campus to address the incidents.

“They were ugly and should not have happened,” Todd said.

Todd insists the school had started to make significant progress in race relations. Black enrollment on the campus broke a record this year, and the school retained black students at a higher rate than their white classmates.

Yet Josh Watkins, the student whose door was vandalized, and black leaders contend the university might not have advanced quite as far as enrollment suggests.

“It’s a history of segregation,” Watkins said. “In the day and age we live in, you would think people would try to improve that image. It’s almost like you can bait someone to get here and then leave them out to pasture to fend for themselves.”

Kentucky, a border state during the Civil War, wasn’t as slow to desegregate as some universities in the Deep South, although it took a lawsuit for the first graduate student to be admitted in 1949. Black undergraduates arrived five years later.

However, the school’s claim to national fame a basketball program that leads the country in all-time wins didn’t sign its first black player until 1969, 20 years after the first black graduate student enrolled.

The lag in integrating the basketball team is largely responsible for the school’s poor image in race relations, said Provost Kumble Subbaswamy, a native of India who is the highest-ranking minority official in the university’s history.

“It was a visible sign of old values and bad values,” said Subbaswamy, who said the school is looking to fill a newly created position of vice president for diversity.

But the image problem is about more than basketball, and it’s far more current, said the Rev. Louis Coleman, director of the Justice Resource Center in Louisville.

In the fall of 2005, the school experienced a 40 percent drop in black freshmen. That drew criticism from black state legislators and some black faculty members.

Enrollment is back up, but there is currently only one minority dean Indian, not black and no black head coaches now that basketball coach Tubby Smith departed for Minnesota.

Editors at the Kernel have apologized for the cartoon, which they said was intended as satire. But Coleman blames the university for creating the culture.

“The environment was conducive for a satire like this to be printed, to be drawn,” Coleman said. “This is not overnight. This has been happening for a long time.”

But Everett McCorvey, the university’s director of opera says the campus problems now are nothing compared to the 1950s and 1960s in Alabama, where he grew up, and he views the cartoon and vandalism threat as isolated.

“At any university, you’re going to have the opportunity for public discourse, and you’re going to have these sort of incidents happen,” McCorvey said. “Do I fear it’s part of a larger problem? No, I don’t.”

Jonathan Best, a senior sociology major who is vice president of the school’s black student union, says the advances the school has made in race relations are “mainly cosmetic.”

“It appears we’re more concerned with getting numbers, not maintaining them, not turning them into professionals,” Best said.

Subbaswamy acknowledged that universities need to include minorities as part of the culture, not just the student body.

“Legalized discrimination went away during the civil rights legislation in the 1960s,” Subbaswamy said. “What we’re dealing with in society today is subtler. Call it racism or discrimination, but that’s much harder to root out.”

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