Rise of the Vulcans

By Michelle Chen Mar 18, 2009

On top of offensive newspaper cartoons and systematic police stops of Blacks and Latinos, communities of color in New York City have yet another controversy to contemplate: color barriers in the ranks of New York’s “Bravest.” Tomorrow, a US District Court in Brooklyn will hear a major civil rights case brought against the New York City Fire Department. The Vulcan Society, an association representing Black firefighters (with a long history of fighting discrimination), accuses the NYFD of widespread discrimination against people of color in the application process, violating federal and state civil rights laws. The lawsuit stems from a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which pointed out vast racial disparities; today, Blacks make up about 3 percent of the fire department but 27 percent of the city’s general population. The City’s Equal Employment Practices Commission has for years pressed the NYFD to reform recruiting and hiring practices. But the lawsuit, litigated by the Center for Constitutional Rights, charges that the NYFD has perpetuated a racially discriminatory, ranking-based test system that has resulted in a nearly all-white department. The plaintiffs demand that the NYFD “appoint entry-level firefighters from among qualified black applicants in sufficient numbers to offset the historic pattern and practice of discrimination against blacks” and to “recruit black candidates and implement and improve long-range recruitment programs.” In a February 2008 letter to The Chief, a local newspaper for civil servants, Vulcan Society President John Coombs blasted “the good ol’ boys club” that maintains the status quo in the NYFD, including department officials and societies advocating for white firefighter communities. He wrote:

Let me be clear: no one is born to be a firefighter. As in many other professions, one has to perform to become proficient. Women, Asians, blacks and Hispanics are all capable of becoming New York firefighters. The time has come for this department to reflect the city which it serves.

Since Coombs presented this challenge, about one year, and one monumental election cycle, have passed. Are New York’s Bravest now ready to grapple with a legacy of racial inequality? Image: New York State Museum