NYFD: Whites Only Club?

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According to most recently available data from the city’s Equal Employment Practices Commission, as of December 2004, there were 11,313 uniformed male firefighters, of which 10,316 were white, 362 were Black, and 533 Latino.

How many years of embarrassing criticism does it take to change the ways of the New York City Fire Department? 
On 9/11, the actions of its firefighters cast a beacon of selfless courage throughout the nation and the world. Yet this is the same organization that continues to exclude the city’s Blacks and Latinos, denying them a fair shot at a job. 
  
According to most recently available data from the city’s Equal Employment Practices Commission, as of December 2004, there were 11,313 uniformed male firefighters, of which 10,316 were white, 362 were Black, and 533 Latino. There were just 40 female uniformed firefighters - nine Black and four Latina. That’s just under 8 percent Black and Latino firefighters in a city that is half people of color.

As it is now constituted, the FDNY is an anachronism. It’s a throwback to the days when job discrimination based on race and ethnicity was openly – even officially - tolerated. Or further back, when the city was overwhelmingly white.  The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been investigating the FDNY’s hiring practices following a complaint filed by the Vulcan Society, the organization of Black firefighters.

Last year there were only 11 Blacks out of a total graduating class of 231, less than 5 percent. And the department terminated the Cadet Corps, the most successful program in recruiting Black firefighter candidates.  The program, which cost about one-tenth of one percent of the FDNY budget, was deemed too expensive. This situation raises questions about the willingness of the department’s leadership to take effective measures to discard procedures at the heart of racial disparities.

And yet the opportunities for recruitment have never been greater.  In the aftermath of 9/11 – when the FDNY suffered its greatest number of casualties for a single day in the city’s history - it became clear that extraordinary steps were needed to replenish its ranks.

The Community Service Society has taken a particular interest in the hiring practices of local government agencies through our research on Black and Latino participation in the city’s labor market. Over the past several years it has become painfully clear, based upon the findings of labor market studies we undertook, that large segments of the city’s population have been consistently separated from employment opportunities across industries in the public and private sectors.  The reports detail the degree to which Black men are shut out of the labor market as well as the extent to which Black and Latino youth are neither in school nor in the labor market.  

Mayor Bloomberg has shown himself to be an aggressive public official when confronted with seemingly intractable problems. He has taken on direct responsibility for the city’s public school system. He recent convened a public/private working group – the Commission for Economic Opportunity – to grapple with the problems of poverty that afflict so many New Yorkers.  He should now turn his attention to the unacceptable hiring practices of the FDNY.

When this issue is raised, blame is often placed on the failure of Black and Latino applicants to pass the firefighters’ examination. A focus solely on test scores to explain the disproportionately high number of white firefighters fails to account for differences in access to test preparation courses and mentor relationships with current personnel. 

But perhaps the most significant omission in assessing the FDNY’s racial composition is the lack of honesty in admitting the existence of an invisible quota system: legacy hiring of offspring that perpetuates white male dominance in the department.  It is an open secret that many family members provide special prep courses for their relatives to ensure that they pass both the physical and written tests. 

The city should study the experience of Baltimore’s fire department.  It overcame similar hiring problems by reaching out to high schools, colleges, churches, and community centers around the city and running advertisements on local radio and television stations.  In addition, it increased the frequency of its admission test and eliminated questions that favored candidates with firefighting experience, as well as offering study guides and coaching classes to applicants.  The result was a huge increase in both Black and female recruits.

Mayor Bloomberg is on record as envisioning a city where everyone will be given the chance to secure their future through meaningful employment.  The mayor should follow through by opening up the FDNY to all New Yorkers.  If the department does not respond to a mayoral order, then the EEOC should sue the city to end these discriminatory hiring practices. 

Jones is president of the Community Service Society of New York, an organization that has helped New Yorkers deal with the problems of poverty and strengthen community life for more than 160 years.  The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer.  Please visit www.cssny.org.

Speaking Truth To Empower.� To contact The Black Star News write editor@Blackstarnews.com or call (212) 481-7745. Subscribe to this newspaper and advertise to build power.

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