Wrestling With Racial Bias, New York Firefighters Resist Reform

Michelle Chen

Battalion Chief Wesley Williams, the New York Fire Department's third black male, was appointed to the force in 1919.

New York City’s fire­fight­ers have been embroiled in racial and eth­nic pol­i­tics through­out their his­to­ry, and the Fire Department’s lat­est civ­il rights con­tro­ver­sy has stoked a polit­i­cal stand­off and a hir­ing freeze.

The FDNY is still reel­ing from a fed­er­al court rul­ing in August that put fire­fight­ers at odds with anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion law. The judge ruled that the Department’s recent hir­ing exam was sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ed against Black and Lati­no candidates.

But to accom­mo­date the need to hire new per­son­nel, the court offered the city the option of ini­ti­at­ing an inter­im hir­ing process, as long as the pro­ce­dures were not dis­crim­i­na­to­ry. The city has so far refused. So now, a long line of frus­trat­ed aspir­ing fire­fight­ers remain in lim­bo, denied a fair shake at obtain­ing a cov­et­ed spot in the ranks of New York’s Bravest.

The Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights and lawyers rep­re­sent­ing the Vul­can Soci­ety, an asso­ci­a­tion of Black fire­fight­ers, accused the FDNY of obstruc­tion:

We had searched for the least dis­rup­tive, least dis­crim­i­na­to­ry, and most fair ways to hire this class. Judge Garau­fis, rather than forc­ing any one method on the City, opt­ed to give it the choice to select the method it pre­ferred. Instead, the City con­tin­ues to obstruct any efforts at col­lec­tive res­o­lu­tion and drag its feet when it comes to diver­si­fy­ing the fire­fight­er workforce.

This suit is in some ways the inverse of the famous Ric­ci v. DeSte­fano case, in which a group of most­ly white fire­fight­ers in New Haven sued over the city’s rejec­tion of exam results that might have invit­ed charges of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. In New York City, advo­cates for Black fire­fight­ers charged that the city’s exam process effec­tive­ly imposed racial barriers.

The con­tro­ver­sy is espe­cial­ly heat­ed not just because of fire­fight­ers’ sta­tus as urban folk heroes, but because the bias at play here isn’t bla­tant racism but a more sub­tle intran­si­gence that’s embed­ded in the institution’s cul­tur­al mind­set.

While the FDNY’s defend­ers pos­ture them­selves as vic­tims of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, the crux of Judge Garaufis’s rul­ing was fun­da­men­tal­ly not about con­struct­ing a race-con­scious hir­ing process, but reject­ing tests that sim­ply don’t do their job:

The City has not shown that the cur­rent exam­i­na­tion iden­ti­fies can­di­dates who will be suc­cess­ful fire­fight­ers. Because the test ques­tions do not mea­sure the abil­i­ties required for the job of entry-lev­el fire­fight­er, the exam­i­na­tion can­not dis­tin­guish between qual­i­fied and unqual­i­fied can­di­dates, or even between more and less qual­i­fied can­di­dates…. What the exam­i­na­tion does do is screen and rank appli­cants in a man­ner that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly excludes black and His­pan­ic appli­cants. As a result, hun­dreds of minor­i­ty appli­cants are being denied the oppor­tu­ni­ty to serve as New York fire­fight­ers, for no legit­i­mate or jus­ti­fi­able reason.

The FDNY’s prob­lem is that it can’t real­ly jus­ti­fy why its squad bears so lit­tle demo­graph­ic resem­blance to the city it serves. While Blacks and Lati­nos make up only 4 and 7 per­cent of the city’s fire­fight­ers respec­tive­ly, the plaintiff’s lawyers point out, More than half of Los Ange­les and Philadelphia’s fire­fight­ers, and 40 per­cent of Boston’s are peo­ple of color.”

The only rea­son­able expla­na­tion appears to be a latent tol­er­ance, if not active defense, of an entrenched white major­i­ty. Below the sur­face lies a com­plex fra­ter­nal sub­cul­ture root­ed in the sinewy tra­di­tions of Old New York, when fire com­pa­nies oper­at­ed more like eth­nic gangs than a gov­ern­ment agency.

Today, the FDNY may func­tion more or less as part of the city’s vast bureau­cra­cy, but its resis­tance to court-ordered reform betrays an arro­gance grand­fa­thered from an ear­li­er time. With their refusal to insti­tute an inter­im hir­ing process, they’ve appar­ent­ly decid­ed that for now, they’d rather put up a good fight, than work with the com­mu­ni­ty to fig­ure out a way to sus­tain its ranks with­out vio­lat­ing civ­il rights. Old habits are hard to extinguish.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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