THE BLOG
08/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Institutional Racism at the NYC Fire Department

I have a couple of things that start me off on out-of- control "rants." Probably everyone has one or two subjects that, once you get started, people in the room start to shift in their chairs, children go find other things to do, and spouses begin kicking you under the table.

One of mine is recently in the news - a federal court ruling, The Vulcan Society, et.al. Vs. The City of New York, et.al, that the New York City Fire Department -- hands down the most racist among large American cities -- discriminates in the way it administers and uses multiple question tests. The city, to its discredit, says it's been working on the problem and a new test had an adequate number of Black and Latino candidates that passed - even though none are likely to be hired any time soon. The city has real gall. After nearly eight years of doing nothing to cure the overt racism in a department with over 9,000 firemen, it now says it has a future fix and doesn't need court intervention.

But, to be fair, this particular abuse can't be confined to the current administration alone. Giuliani, Wagner, and even my own friend Mayor Dinkins were not able to break this peculiar throwback to another America. It's sort of like discovering that in 2009, the city had a public park which had a sign saying no Blacks or Latinos allowed (no reference to Gramercy Park, of course).

The basis for why I'm out of control on this issue started early in my career. I had just left Cravath, Swaine & Moore as an associate to join Ed Koch as a special advisor in 1980, and I was approached by the highest ranking Black administrator at the Fire Department with a plea for help. He had been asked by his superiors to take on a battalion chief's daughter as a trainee. He gladly agreed, but six months after she was brought into the department, the young woman was made his boss! I brought the matter directly to Ed, who promptly called in the Fire Commissioner, who confirmed the man's story. The outcome? The best the Mayor and the Fire Commissioner could come up with was a transfer to another mayoral agency with a boost in civil service grade; the Fire Department maintained its exceptionalism as a white male enclave.

The lawsuit brought forward some of the silliest arguments from the City of New York, primarily that the fact that only 3% of the department was Black was because of business necessity, claiming that its multiple choice test was a good predictor of who will be a good fireman. The city failed to make this argument work largely because the test was prepared by a group of incumbent firefighters, apparently none of color.

So basically we have exactly what happened to voting in New York before the so called literacy tests were thrown out. Let's come up with a list of questions that are basically developed by insiders to ensure that their group of nephews, sons, and other family will know and outsiders won't. And the city, mayors, and fire commissioners year after year have allowed it to go on.
Despite federal lawsuits finding intentional discrimination, and countless articles by the Vulcan Society and many others, it remains an increasingly strange anachronism in a city made up nearly of 55% people of color. Other cities have managed to get it done. The federal court specifically mentioned Los Angles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston -- all have made strides that New York City seems incapable of making.

I don't get it. The New York City Police Department made the change, despite similar problems earlier on. Plainly, 9/11 made the Fire Department sacrosanct for a number of years because of the high death toll and bravery of the members of the department. It can't be purely politics, since a larger and larger proportion of incumbent firefighters live - and vote - outside the five boroughs. Maybe it's a carryover of older myths about Blacks and Latinos - i.e., they can't stand the heat.

So now comes the remedy stage. Fixing the exam is one step, but putting real muscle behind recruitment in Black and Brown communities, especially with unemployment running at nearly 20% among communities of color, should dramatically change the pool of candidates.
Finally, one of the reasons family legacies are so strong is that some communities literally have fire exam camps where young people get exposed to questions on past exams and the physical parts of the test. To level the playing field the Fire Department actually started a cadet program in 1999 aimed at doing the same for young people in Black and Latino communities. It was discontinued in 2002 as a budget savings, despite good results. It raises the question about how much the Fire Department or the Mayor's office cares about the issue.

The Court's ruling should give them a good incentive to renew this targeted outreach and finally cure one of the most blatant problems of discrimination in the city's workforce. And hold the Fire Department leadership accountable for this pattern of exclusion. Hopefully, I won't be ranting next year.