White Heat: Fighting Racism in New York’s Fire Department

The most biting part of a federal judge’s ruling in January that New York City had intentionally discriminated against blacks and Latinos in firefighter hiring wasn’t the proof of the crime, but citing that the city’s lawyers had barely put up an adequate defense.


The judge made clear that two written exams for the job were meant to weed out minority candidates, and that the city ignored previous court’s warnings that it was in violation of the Civil Rights Act; the FDNY is 7 percent black and Latino, a number that has not changed since the 1970s, while departments in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles range between 25 and 55 percent minority.


The judge ordered that blacks and Latinos who took the test be hired, and it is possible he may institute hiring quotas. Yet, even though the city didn’t explain why the tests had business necessity or prove what it had done to achieve diversity in hiring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is crying foul, along with white firefighters who claim the ruling is bogus and will lead to unqualified minorities joining the force. One high-ranking chief, Paul Mannix, founded a group called “Merit Matters,” to spread the discontent on the city’s right-wing radio shows, saying that a shadow will be cast over any new minority firefighters to come on the job.


There is the distinct possibility that the harassment of minority firefighters on the job, whether it’s hanging Ku Klux Klan hoods in firehouse locker-rooms or giving prime job assignments to younger white firefighters over their minority counterparts, can increase.


“When any large organization is forced to integrate, it’s always going to be difficult,” says Paul Washington, the former president of the FDNY Vulcan Society of black firefighters. “We’re willing to go through that help our members and any new black firefighters to come through without being discriminated against. Hopefully, it will go smoothly, but we’re ready for this to be a struggle.”


What might cause a bigger backlash against black firefighters is if the judge rules that the city can no longer use written entrance exams, the main tool to exclude minority candidates, the judge ruled. This is not say the city can’t test for cognitive as well as physical abilities, but written tests are widely considered archaic, both in terms of job relevance and as a barrier to integration.


“The most important skill on the job in a cognitive way is oral comprehension and oral communication, because that’s how firefighters communicate in a fire,” says Richard Levy, an attorney for the Vulcans. “Does the city test for this? No. Do the other cities in the country test for this? Yes. Is there a lot less racial impact when you test for oral as opposed to written comprehension skills? Yes.”


An obvious question arises: why would a black or Latino want a job where their run into burning buildings in addition to dealing with institutional racism? Despite the danger of the job, it is one of the last professions our de-industrializing economy where blue-collar workers can make a decent living. New York firefighters often work two 24-hour tours a week, allowing them to have side gigs. A fifth-year firefighter with a contracting job or doing substantial overtime—someone who might not even have a college degree—can easily pull in six figures annually, with a pension, full benefits, and the ability to retire as early as age 40. Among working class people in New York, this is without question a coveted job.


Unlike in the NYPD, which is quiet diverse, firefighters spend their time in the firehouse hanging out, cooking and watching television, while even when cops aren’t responding to calls are in acrimonious precincts with micromanaging superiors, or cramped in their squad cars sitting on their scanners. Even more, people like firefighters, while few have the same affection for cops. There is reason why many former cops pass through the Fire Academy, but there is little switching over in the other direction.


People in this job want to keep it as their closed society. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg’s chief defense of the lack of diversity is that most people come into the job because their father was a firefighter, and there is a lot of truth to this. It isn’t just overwhelming white, Irish, or Italian, but it is a family club. A glaring note: the front-line firefighters union president and the department’s chief spokesman—bitter adversaries in the city’s tabloids—are cousins. But as Washington points out, this is not something that can’t be overcome.


Mayor Bloomberg has said repeatedly that it has increased minority recruitment in the last few years, but the Vulcans say this is too little too late, and it has in fact spent more time and energy fighting the claims of the federal suit, which could have been spent working with the black firefighters group on figuring ways to diversity the force.


“The city’s actions are really kind of perplexing,” says Washington. “They’re spending millions and millions of dollars in defending what they know is indefensible.”




Ari Paul is reporter at The Chief-Leader, a newspaper covering labor in New York City, a correspondent for Free Speech Radio News.

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