Ernest Owens, Philadelphia Magazine, April 5, 2019
At a meeting of the African American Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Jim Kenney had his “I can see Russia from my house” moment.
Just before the meeting, city controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office had released a report on diversity among city-hired workers. When I asked why it showed that 48.2 percent of the exempt workforce in departments under the mayor’s authority is white — a significant overrepresentation in a city that as a whole is 66 percent non-white — Kenney gave me a jaw-dropping response:
“We have a hard time hiring Black people for these jobs because they’re so super-talented and too overqualified that they choose to run after the private sector instead. They don’t want to take the pay cut.”
Kenney then bragged about city solicitor Marcel Pratt (one of only four people of color in Kenney’s 14-member cabinet), saying how “lucky” the city is to have “gotten” him and how “surprised” he was that Pratt “would choose to take a job for the city given how super-talented he is.”
Shocked, I followed up by asking Kenney: “So what you are telling me is that Black people aren’t applying for these positions because they are ‘too overqualified’ — to the point that you have to hire more white people instead?”
In a nutshell, Kenney pretty much did what every white leader who’s put on the spot about diversity shortcomings does: put the onus on people of color instead of on the racial discrimination, nepotism, cronyism, and institutional bias that hold them back. The classic response is “We can’t find [insert underrepresented group] who are interested/have the experience” — Kenney’s twist was to sugarcoat the scapegoat.
According to the mayor, we shouldn’t blame his administration for its lackluster record on diversity hires — it’s that “overqualified” and “super-talented” Black people don’t want to take a pay cut in order to work in the public sector. What’s even more infuriating is that Kenney truly thought he was giving a compliment when he was essentially doubling-down on a racist stereotype that suggests that minorities are money-driven hustlers who value getting paid over public service.