Asheville sued over refusal to appoint white applicants to human relations group

Plaintiff John Miall stands before Asheville City Hall. (Image submitted by WNC Citizens for Equality)

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  • Five Asheville-area residents are suing the city in federal court for refusing to appoint them to the local Human Relations Commission. The residents claim they were rejected because they are white.
  • The 15-member board sets aside eight seats based on racial classifications, as well other spots based on LGBTQ status, age, and public housing residence.
  • The group WNC Citizens for Equality settled an earlier lawsuit with Asheville over a "racially discriminatory" scholarship program.

Five people living in or near Asheville have sued the city in federal court for refusing to appoint them to a city advisory board. They argue that the city rejected them because they are white.

Asheville’s Human Relations Commission, created in 2018, is a volunteer group designed to “promote and improve human relations and achieve equity among all citizens in the city by carrying out the city’s human relations program,” according to the complaint filed Tuesday in US District Court.

City rules dictate that eight of the group’s 15 members will be black or “Latinx.” Rules also specify that the board also must include two “members of the LGBTQ community,” two adults from 18-25 years old, two or three people who live in public housing, two people “with a disability,” and three people “recognized as community leaders.”

In June 2022, the commission tabled a recommendation from Asheville’s city attorney to remove the group’s racial qualifications. At the time, commission chair Tanya Rodriguez explained her “concern that ‘our color isn’t diluted out of the Commission,’” according to the complaint.

The commission publicized at least four open positions in February 2023. All five plaintiffs applied.

“Plaintiffs did not meet Defendants’ racial criteria nor the other criteria of being disabled, living in public housing, between the ages of 25 and 18, a member of the LGBTQ community, nor were Plaintiffs ‘recognized community leaders’ as Defendants considered that term,” according to the suit.

Asheville rejected the plaintiffs’ applications in June. “At no time prior to rejecting Plaintiffs’ applications did Defendants communicate with Plaintiffs regarding their interest in the HRCA; nor did they seek any further information from the Plaintiffs regarding their qualifications to serve on the HRCA,” the complaint explained.

“Rather than appoint Plaintiffs to the HRCA, Defendants elected to leave the open positions vacant and re-advertise the openings in the hopes of obtaining applicants who met Defendants’ criteria,” according to the suit.

“At all relevant times, Defendants excluded white persons from serving on the HRCA unless they could qualify under … additional criteria,” the plaintiffs argued. “In effect, white applicants must demonstrate a ‘plus factor’ (age, homosexual/ transgender, disability status, public housing resident, or community leader) before being qualified for service.”

“Defendants conspired with each other to organize and administer the HRCA in a way that was discriminatory on the basis of race and ethnicity,” the complaint argued. “At all relevant times, Defendants were, and continue to be, aware that its organization and administration of the HRCA which discriminated and will continue to discriminate against applicants on the basis of race and ethnicity was and continues to be a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

“They never asked me a thing,” said plaintiff John Miall, in a news release from the Asheville-based group WNC Citizens for Equality. “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.” 

“The City’s actions here are absolutely unconstitutional,” added attorney Ruth Smith, who represents 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.”

WNC Citizens for Equality also sued Asheville in recent years after the city established “racially discriminatory” scholarships for city high school students and teachers, according to the news release. The city “backtracked and settled” with the group, which bills itself as a local watchdog.

“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,” said group president Carl Mumpower. “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.”