Allegations of racism among elected officials have rocked Hoschton, Georgia, a small town of under 2,000 people, about 50 miles north of Atlanta.
Mayor Theresa Kenerly reportedly rejected a recent city administrator candidate because he was black, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. A city council member later attempted to defend Kenerly, but ended up complaining to local reporters about interracial relationships instead.
Speaking during a closed-door council session in March — and then again afterward with council members in the parking lot — Kenerly claimed Keith Henry, one of four final candidates up for the position, would not be a good fit for the job “because he is black, and the city isn’t ready for this.”
Hoschton’s city code expressly prohibits discrimination based on “race, national origin, color, religion, creed, age, sex.”
Two other members of the city council eventually reported the comments to the city attorney, who struck a deal with the mayor, allowing her to continue attending candidate interviews without participating in them.
Not all of the council members, however, were upset by the comments. City Councilman Jim Cleveland defended Kenerly’s decision not to hire Henry in an interview with the Journal-Constitution, but ended up wading deeper into the controversy.
Cleveland confirmed many aspects of the outlet’s story, before insisting Kenerly was simply “looking out” for Henry because the town is nearly all white. “I don’t know how they would take it if we selected a black administrator. She might have been right,” he said.
He then proceeded to comment unprompted on why interracial marriage made his “blood boil.”
“I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage,” Cleveland said. “That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe. I have black friends, I hired black people. But when it comes to all this stuff you see on TV, when you see blacks and whites together, it makes my blood boil because that’s just not the way a Christian is supposed to live.”
Henry has since spoken out about the hiring process, saying he didn’t perceive any racism during the search. He nevertheless backed out from consideration shortly after the meeting where Kenerly made her comment because the council expected him to pay his own way from Houston, Texas, to come for an in-person interview, with only the promise of reimbursement later. Two of the other three candidates were local and another drove from elsewhere in Georgia at his own expense.
Kenerly initially avoided commenting on the allegations, but has since issued a statement denying them. “I do not recall making the statement attributed to me regarding any applicant for the City Administrator position, and I deny that I made any statement that suggest (sic) prejudice,” she said.
Other council members have confirmed, however, that Kenerly gave a tearful apology to the council and agreed to remove herself from the search process. She refused to answer the Journal-Constitution’s questions as to why she offered an apology if she did not make the comments.
Racial discrimination in hiring is illegal under federal and state law. While some of these laws have been on the books for decades, racial discrimination in hiring hasn’t substantially decreased in that time. Studies using résumé testing and in-person audits using stereotypically black or Latinx names found that white applicants receive 36% more callbacks than equally qualified black candidates, and 24% more callbacks than equally qualified Latinx candidates.
Because such discrimination is not overt, many individuals may not even realize they’re experiencing it. While the Journal-Constitution’s reporting found no evidence that the unique burdens placed on Henry’s visit for an interview were motivated by racism, it is nevertheless another conspicuous inequity he faced in the search.