First, let me begin with a personal note about the FDNY. I was in New York City when the terrorist attacks occurred on 9/11. I was grateful on that day that my loved ones came home that day from working in lower Manhattan, shaken but not physically harmed. I was so moved by the heroism, and devastating loss, to the FDNY (343 died) on that day — and so befuddled about what to do in the face of that overwhelming tragedy — that one of the things I did was what my people do when someone dies: I cooked and delivered food. Specifically, I cooked a huge batch of fried chicken and walked it over to the firehouse nearest my apartment. I say that to let readers know that I have a tremendous respect for the day-to-day heroism of firefighters and the work that they do. And, yet, in watching all those funerals for firefighters after 9/11 it was impossible not to notice how overwhelmingly white and male the FDNY remains. The racial composition of the fire department is no accident.
A judge in New York ruled that the FDNY had engaged in a deliberate “pattern, practice, and policy of intentional discrimination.” Back in July, 2009, Judge Garaufis ruled that the FDNY used a test in 1999 and 2002 that had a discriminatory effect on black applicants. In his ruling on Wednesday, January 13, 2010, the judge found that the city intentionally discriminated against blacks in using those tests and in ignoring calls over the years to change the testing procedure. The suit was brought by three people who took the test and by the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black city firefighters.
Legal experts said the decision was the first in recent memory in which a court had found that the city had intentionally discriminated against a large group of people in the workplace. There is also evidence that those at the highest levels in city government, including (former) Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scopetta and Mayor Bloomberg, were aware of this “pattern, practice and policy of discrimination” at the FDNY and did nothing to stop it, although the judge’s ruling stopped just short of holding them legally responsible. However, the judge did write that he found strong evidence to suggest that they were made aware numerous times that the Fire Department’s entrance exams were discriminatory, yet failed to take sufficient remedial action. Mayor Bloomberg testified at a deposition in August that he “did not recall” receiving a report more than six years ago warning him about sharp differences in the pass rates between white and minority candidates for firefighter jobs. Part of what is so remarkable about this decision is that it is one of the few court decisions in recent memory that finds there was racially discriminatory intent, rather than simply a disparate-impact.
The New York Times article quotes Paul Washington, 48, a firefighter in Brooklyn and a former Vulcan Society president, who said that the ruling validated “what we’ve been saying for the longest time, and which I’ve been saying since 1999 — that the Fire Department discriminates, intentionally, and they just continue to do it.” Washington says he believes that over the department’s 145-year history, there were probably “thousands of thousands of black men and women who should have had this job and didn’t get it.”
Washington’s comment in the NYTimes highlights gender discrimination, not addressed by this court decision. Make no mistake, the FDNY has also systematically and intentionally discriminated against women over its 145-year history. The story of Brenda Berkman illustrates how difficult it is even for women with white skin privilege who still face gender discrimination. Berkman is a white woman who sued the FDNY and eventually became a Captain in the Fire Department, There is an excellent documentary by Bann Roy about Berkman, called “Taking the Heat.” The film also touches on the struggle of black firefighters and includes some interviews with members of the Vulcan Society.
Federal Judge Garaufis struck a blow for racial equality with this decision, but the FDNY has a long way to go before it will be an equitable organization in practice. Until that time, the kind of excessive valorization of firefighters that goes on – perhaps especially in this city – will always be a bit tempered for me by the knowledge that this particular form of on-the-job heroism is only available to a few, white men.