Press release from WNC Citizens for Equality:
Citizens file federal civil rights lawsuit against City of Asheville after city denies them service opportunities because they are white
Five individuals living in and around Asheville, NC have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Asheville after the City refused to appoint them to an advisory board based on their race. The Human RelationsCommission is an advisory board established in 2019 by the City to “promote and improve human relations and achieveequity among all citizens in the city” according to the City’s website. The City explains on its website that boards and commissions like the Human Relations Commission offer participants “a voice in the City’s growth and future” and an opportunity to be responsible for “making decisions regarding policy, service, and education.”
In establishing the Human Relations Commission, the City established rules regarding who could serve. Applicants who are non-white are automatically qualified to serve on the Commission.
However, white persons must meet additional criteria to serve: be a member of the LGBTQ+ community, live in public housing, have a disability, be under age 25, or be a “community leaders”. Even if a white applicant does meetthis additional criteria, the City’s rules state that no more than 7 of the 15 members of the Commission can be white.(The City of Asheville is over 81% white according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
In March, 2023, the City advertised that it had four openings on the Commission and invited persons to apply for the positions. The five plaintiffs, who are all white, all applied. But rather than appoint the white applicants, the City chose instead to leave two of the positions vacant and readvertise the positions. The City never bothered to interview the five candidates or otherwise make any inquiry into their qualifications. “They never asked me a thing”, says John Miall, one of the plaintiffs. “They just took one look at my skin color and rejected me. I have a lot to offer, but that doesn’t matter I guess.”
Lead Plaintiff John Miall outside of Asheville City Hall after being denied opportunity to serve on Human Relations Commission
“The City’s actions here are absolutely unconstitutional”, says local attorney Ruth Smith, who is representing the five plaintiffs. “The City cannot offer civic opportunities to some persons, and deny it to others, based on race. What’s more, the City is well aware that their actions are illegal. Their own lawyer told them as much last year, but the City ignored her.” Ms. Smith refers to a meeting of the Commission on June 16, 2022, where Asheville City attorney Aairn Miles met with the Human Relations Commission and advised them to change the racial requirements for service as these requirements were unconstitutional. Chairperson Tanya Rodriguez, who is black, rejected this advice. Ms. Rodriguez stated that she did not want “our color …diluted out of the Commission”.
This lawsuit represents the second federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the City of Asheville in less than two years. In 2022, the City backtracked and settled a lawsuit with local watchdog organization WNC Citizens for Equality after it sued the city for establishing scholarships for city high school students and teachers which were racially discriminatory.
Attorney Ruth Smith explained: “The City’s leadership knows what they are doing is illegal. They do it because they think no one would dare challenge them. I am just so proud of my five clients for being willing to stand up for their rights, and the rights of all persons in Asheville to be free from racial discrimination. Without them, the City of Asheville would continue to be a place where you are excluded from city benefits just because of your skin color. None of us should live in such a place, and the Constitution says we don’t have to.”
The President of WNCCE, Carl Mumpower offered the following summation of a series of unprecedented challenges now faced by local government and community agencies — “We have people in Asheville, either through naïveté or malice, who feel liberated to ignore the hard-won progress of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as they openly advocate racial discrimination. As a nation and community, we have worked too hard to achieve commendable progress on eliminating race as a measurement of eligibility for anything. It is our honor to support constructive, creative, legal ways to challenge those who would recklessly attempt to take us back in time.”