When Tinisha Edwards was 10 years old and growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, the firefighter across the street, especially when dressed in his dark navy ceremonial uniform, was a source of neighborhood pride.
"We were just so proud of him," Edwards recalled. "We all looked up to him."
Kids growing up in the city are accustomed to firetrucks, the ubiquitous blare of their sirens and the men who pile in and out of them. But for Edwards and others in mostly black New York City neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, seeing firefighters who looked like them was something extraordinary.
"There are a lot of white firefighters, so for a black man to be in such a high position made me feel like I could achieve anything I set my mind to," said Edwards, now 30. "We set our boundaries or aspirations on what we are accustomed to seeing. So seeing him set a guide for what I could aspire to in life."
Back then, her neighbor was one of only a small group of blacks in the Fire Department of New York, a force that is still struggling to recruit, hire and retain firefighters of color. Today, only about 3 percent of the FDNY's force is black, a persistently low number in a city with a black population of more than 3 million.
In 2007 the Department of Justice joined the Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters, in a lawsuit against the city, over complaints that the FDNY had used racially biased testing in its hiring, as well as other illegally and intentionally discriminatory practices. Then in 2009 and 2010 a judge issued rulings that found the city had discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants; in August, a judge began considering remedies, including a court appointed master to oversee the department.
"What we've done through the judge and through other means is give the recruiting department the resources that it needs," said Capt. Paul Washington of Engine 234 in Brooklyn, a past president of the Vulcan Society. "We're forcing them to take steps in the right direction. Let it be clear, they are being forced to take those steps. The city has actively fought us every step of the way."
The department recently developed a new test, which will be administered for the first time in January. The new test is expected to cost the city more than $3.3 million to develop and administer, officials have said in recent reports.
Meanwhile, the FDNY has increased their minority recruiting efforts, both by order of the courts and under pressure from the Vulcan Society.
Recruiters have set up tables at black churches, high schools and shopping malls. They have taken to the airwaves of black radio stations like Hot 97 and Kiss FM, and set up a Facebook page to assist in corralling applicants.
In July, Edwards, a recruiter for the U.S. Navy, applied for the FDNY, joining more than 43,000 other applicants hoping to become one of "New York's Bravest."
As of Tuesday, 9,227 applicants, or 21.3 percent of the applicant pool, were African American. Another 9,990 (22.9 percent) were Hispanic and 1,356 (3.1 percent) were Asian, according to FDNY spokesman James Long.
The number of black applicants is up from 5,628 in 2007, the last time applications were accepted, and more than double what it has been in decades past. Still, the bump in applications hasn't signaled a win for proponents of more drastic diversity measures.
“We’re not going to say it has been successful or a failure until those numbers translate into employment for black applicants, women and other underrepresented populations," said John Coombs, a firefighter in Engine Company 250 in Brooklyn and current president of the Vulcan Society. "Until those statistics translate into employment, the number means nothing."
Part of the challenge in diversifying the department, which is about 91 percent white, is a matter of family legacy. Many firefighters are third- and fourth-generation firefighters who grew up in the rich culture of the department, where they are groomed from an early age to view the FDNY as more than just a job but a rite of passage.
"They have been bred to be firefighters," said Jonathan Logan, a firefighter with Squad 270, an elite unit. "They get mad when we recruit our people, but they've been recruiting from day one. They grew up with firefighter fathers, grandfathers, guys on their block who picked them up from school and ball games."
Those firefighters do not see the job in the same light that kids who grow up outside of that culture do, as many black firefighters undoubtedly have, he said.
Logan said life for black firefighters is a mixed-bag: The department is much like an extended family of brothers, whose lives depend on that brotherhood, that "truly puts family first" but that has a racist streak.
Most black firefighters have their stories of racial taunts or outright racism by their white brethren: oil in their boots, racial jokes and epithets, the defacing of fliers -- and most recently a noose found dangling outside a fireman's locker in Brooklyn.
Shortly after 9/11, the Vulcan Society posted fliers announcing a memorial ceremony for the 12 black firefighters who died during the attacks. Several of the fliers were defaced. Someone wrote "Lick me" on one, and "What about the white guys?" on another. On a flier, someone scrawled over the guest list, which included Al Sharpton and former New York City mayor David Dinkins, replacing their names with those of rap stars and "Buckwheat," Washington and others testified in court.
"Sometimes it makes you say, 'You know what, is this guy going to come into a basement and get me when its fully involved, because this guy is a coward because he won't come up to you and say I don't appreciate you putting Vulcan fliers on the board?'" Logan asked. "You hate to make thing a black-white issue but sometimes that's what it is."
But, the racism, subtle or overt, belies the bond that most of the men share, he said.
"I can confidently say the brothers that I work with would come and get me," Logan said. "No matter what, you have guys that are shaky with their interpersonal skills, but when it comes down to going to work, I believe these guys would show up regardless."
When Washington, the former Vulcan Society president, joined the force in 1988, he and another rookie were the only two African Americans in a class of at least 150 firefighters, he said.
"That was typical back then," said Washington. But with some of the changes underway in the department, he said, "I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Washington was that black man in the crisp navy blue "Class A" uniform who lived across from Edwards when she was just a little girl. And he and others like Logan have committed themselves to helping to change the face of the FDNY.
"All of these changes have been done with the support of the black community," Washington said. "We were just the catalysts."
"A victory for us will be getting a fair exam that gives us a fair chance of bringing a good candidate on the job," said Logan. "Justice and a victory would be diversifying the Fire Department of the City of New York and having members on the job that reflect the communities that we serve."
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