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FDNY in Black and White

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Last summer Mayor Michael Bloomberg swore in a new class of New York City police recruits. Among the 274 new officers, 58 percent were minority. The city proudly noted that the class "consists of recruits who were born in 22 countries."

But in a city that is half minority, only about 10 percent of New York firefighters are despite recent efforts to increase their numbers. Only 3.4 percent are black. This week that particular statistic came back and bit the city, in the form of a ruling by a federal judge that the Fire Department's hiring practices constituted "a pattern, practice and policy of intentional discrimination..." that was a "stain on the Fire Department's record."

The ruling seems to depict a city from another era, whose officials ignored calls for change and intentionally conspired to keep the Fire Department white. How could this be? How could a city where the police department has made major, and successful, efforts to recruit black officers, countenance a fire department that seemed to be going in the opposite direction?

I don't know whether the ruling will stand, but I can offer one explanation that does not require the public to believe that the leaders of the city of New York are closet racists.

It's the insular culture of the Fire Department.

We think of the fire and police services as more or less the same - the Finest and the Bravest, both risking their lives to keep us safe. But their lives are very different thing. The firefighter's job is much less varied and far less solitary than the cop's.

Firefighters live as a family, eating and sleeping and risking their lives together in a unit. It creates a sense of solidarity that is passed down from father to son. Insular, proud, and extremely hard to manage from the outside.

To see the grandeur and the problems of the fire culture, just look at September 11. The men who rushed into the towers, heedless of their own safety, were following the department creed. After they died, their firefighter fathers and brothers and friends also raced to the World Trade Center site to search for their bodies. They ignored all safety protocols in their drive to reclaim their lost men. For too long, the city deferred to their grief and near irrationality. When safety rules were finally imposed, the firefighters nearly rioted in anger, they were so desperate to go back to proving their bond with their comrades by risking their lives breathing toxic air and digging in unstable piles of rubble for their comrades.

If the goal of the Fire Department is just to put out fires, the easiest way to manage it is to let it alone. Over and over again, mayors of the city of New York have tried to impose some 20th, then 21st, century organizational structure and come to grief. Rudy Giuliani, for all his boasts of toughness, could never get the firefighters to work with the police department.

Michael Bloomberg had precious little luck in closing down fire houses, even though there were too many of them in the wrong places for the most efficient deployment.

The Fire Department is a world of fathers and sons who want to pass their traditions down the family tree. You do not have to be a racist to want your own white son or grandson to join your fraternity, even if it means putting someone else's black son on hold.

The tests helped to accomplish that goal. Don't think they were designed to exclude blacks. But once it turned out that was the outcome, it would certainly have been possible to design a different test that creates a more diverse pool of candidates.

But to get there, the city would have had to mess with the Fire Department, and who wants to? They're heroes. They like things the way they are. That's true of everything from the location of the fire houses to the way the tests are written.

The city says it will appeal the ruling, and it is hard to predict how things will work out. This is not the most favorable time in the world to bring a fire department discrimination suit. Anyone who followed Sonia Sotomayor's elevation to the Supreme Court remembers the suit by white firefighters in New Haven, who won a 5-4 victory in the Supreme Court that revolved around a test for promotion.

If you are a lawyer, I welcome your opinion on the legality of the whole thing. But looking at the situation practically and politically, it is crazy to have a city in which one of the major public safety services is virtually all white while the city is more than a quarter black.