Fire Department Ruling Seeks to Extinguish Racism

By Michelle Chen Jan 14, 2010

New York City firefighters stoked the national debate on affirmative action this week with a landmark court ruling. Last year, a federal court ruled in favor of the Vulcan Society, an association of Black firefighters, determining that the city’s civil service exams were fundamentally biased against applicants of color. A new ruling this week goes further; it actually attributes racial disparities not only to an exclusionary exam, but to intentional discrimination against blacks. Firefighter exams became a political lightning rod on the national stage with the sweeping Supreme Court decision in Ricci v. DeStefano. The court sided with a group of mostly white firefighters in New Haven who accused the city of "reverse discrimination" because it scrapped a civil service exam that had failed to promote Black candidates to achieve diversity benchmarks. That case sparked intense controversy, particularly because the Appeals court ruling that rejected the firefighters’ claim involved Judge, now Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. New York City’s case is almost the mirror opposite. The basic premise of the earlier ruling was that since 1999, the Department had “used written examinations with discriminatory effects and little relationship to the job of a firefighter… [that] unfairly excluded hundreds of qualified people of color from the opportunity to serve as New York City firefighters.” Now, the court has concluded that the Department, which is the least diverse of any major city in the country, has remained so white for so long due to de facto racism embedded in the institution’s fiber. Noting the glaring disproportionality in the racial makeup of the fire department—barely 10 percent Black and Latino, compared to a city population that is less than 50 percent white—lead counsel Richard Levy declared:

This decision represents a major victory for all minority citizens of New York City who have been denied employment because of their race, color or national origin. But it is a particular vindication for the Vulcan Society, the Black organization of firefighters that has been waging this struggle for equality for more than forty years. The City has kept blinders tightly in place to avoid recognizing and dealing with a problem of discrimination that has been shockingly clear to all citizens of New York. The Fire Department has been a virtually all White club since its inception many decades ago and no one in City government has seen fit to address the issue. Now it must.

It’s not clear yet what actual legal remedies the Fire Department will undertake, but it would probably involve restorative remedies for victims of discrimination as well as reforms to the application process to make sure the pattern doesn’t repeat itself. Former Vulcan Society President Paul Washington optimistically predicted, “We hope this means 145 years of racism in the New York City Fire Dept will now come to an end.” Unlikely. If the Ricci case proves anything, it is that racial polarization and hostilities tend to harden in the courtroom, where personal grievances must yield to overarching principles of equity. Every firefighter passed over for a promotion could try to frame their story as a compelling discrimination case—firefighter Frank Ricci’s personal struggle certainly tugged at the heartstrings of the increasingly bitter right wing—but ultimately, such cases hinge on a standard of civil rights that subsumes individual ambition. It was rough justice that the court delivered this week. Now, as the Fire Department wades through the rest of the legal process, the future integrity of the institution will involve painful adjustments on both sides, perhaps more heated arguments and soul-searching over who deserves the job and who is really qualified. But that may be the price of owning up to a history of discrimination. On balance, the decision will likely bruise egos in the current corps of firefighters, but it will help ensure that future generations of New York’s Bravest will truly represent the city they protect. Image: International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters