Black People : Court rules that NYC Fire Department has Jim Crow hiring policies

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    Democracy Now
    July 23, 2009

    Court Rules New York Fire Department Discriminates Against Black, Latino Applicants

    A federal judge has determined that the Fire Department of New York City used racially discriminatory hiring practices that unlawfully prevented hundreds of qualified African American and Latino applicants from joining the department. New York City has the least diverse fire department of any major city in the nation. [includes rush transcript]


    Paul Washington, past president of the fraternal order of black firefighters, the Vulcan Society.

    Shayana Kadidal, managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

    AMY GOODMAN: The Somali Canadian rapper K’Naan, performing in our firehouse studio. And speaking of firehouses, today we look at the Fire Department of New York. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, a federal judge has determined the Fire Department of New York City used racially discriminatory hiring practices that unlawfully prevented hundreds of qualified African American and Latino applicants from joining the department. New York City has the least diverse fire department of any major city in the United States.

    The fire department is about 90 percent white, even though African Americans and Latinos make up the majority of the city’s population. Just three percent of the city’s firefighters are black. US District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that New York had used tests that discriminated against black and Latino applicants, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    AMY GOODMAN: The ruling came in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Vulcan Society, the fraternal organization of black firefighters. We’re joined right now by a longtime New York firefighter, Paul Washington, past president of the Vulcan Society, and attorney Shayana Kadidal, also with us. He’s a managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, the legal group involved in the case.

    Well, Paul, welcome to a firehouse.

    PAUL WASHINGTON: Thank you for having me.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did it feel to walk into this place?

    PAUL WASHINGTON: I never walked into a firehouse like this, certainly.

    AMY GOODMAN: Shayana, just lay out the case.

    SHAYANA KADIDAL: Sure. Well, this is what you call a “disparate impact case.” The main hurdle you have to get over as an applicant, if you’re trying to get into the fire department, is a written examination. And the written exam here weeds out minorities. We’ve known this for a long time. Minorities pass at a lower rate than whites do, and they also score in the very top tier—the people who are most likely to get hired, ninety-five out of a hundred and up—at a much lower rate than whites.

    So the question then becomes, since the test weeds out minorities, is the city, nonetheless, allowed to use the test because it has some sort of very close relationship to the job skills? Are the things that the test measures things that you have to have in order to become a good firefighter? And what the court said yesterday is, not only does this test have a disproportionate impact on minorities, but that it doesn’t have any relationship to the job of being a firefighter, that people who do well on the test aren’t necessarily going to become good firefighters.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the process of the case, were you able to get at what the—how it was that the test was able to weed out African Americans and Latinos?

    SHAYANA KADIDAL: Well, you know, I think it’s basically sort of an SAT-like test, what we call a cognitive test. It measures sort of abstract, sort of intellectual skills.

    But, you know, the bottom line is that the job of a firefighter is about doing sort of skills that you learn on the job, but doing them under intense pressure, intense real-world pressure. And you really can’t measure who’s going to do well on that kind of challenge from a paper-and-pencil test that happens in a nice, little sort of classroom, right? You know, by and large, firefighting has been a sort of apprenticeship kind of job over the years. It’s something where you learn how to do it on the job. You can only really tell who’s going to be good at it once they’re sort of working at the job.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Paul Washington, talk about the test in terms of the average firefighter, because, obviously, most fire departments are sort of—you find generations of people in the fire department. “My grandfather was a firefighter, my father was a firefighter, my brother’s a firefighter.” To what degree did these family connections and preparation for these tests—were part of the culture of getting into the fire department?

    PAUL WASHINGTON: Oh, yeah, family connections are very important. I know that from personal experience. My father was a firefighter, my older brother and uncle, etc. So that gave me, definitely, a big leg up in getting onto this job. There’s no question that’s a huge advantage, and that’s an advantage that very few blacks and Hispanics enjoy.

    The job has—and we have to remember, there was open and blatant discrimination in the fire department for at least a hundred years. Black applicants’ applications would be thrown in the garbage. Black applicants would do well on the test and just never be called. A black applicant would have done some—committed some minor offense, literally jumping a turnstile, and he would be excluded because of that. This was rampant in the fire department for, like I say, over 100 years. So that gave whites a huge head start on this job.

    And it’s also the type of job where you don’t realize how good it is unless you have some type of family connection. Most people, when they think of the fire department or becoming a firefighter, they think of the danger involved, and there is some danger involved in the job, but not nearly as much as people think. But if you have no connection, no intimate connection with it, that tends to keep you away from the job.

    AMY GOODMAN: New York City has the least racially diverse fire department of any big city in the United States?

    PAUL WASHINGTON: Yeah, certainly.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why is this true?

    PAUL WASHINGTON: Well, some of the reasons I just mentioned, and also, as Shayana said, the test that they give tends to put blacks in the middle or the bottom of the list, where we don’t get reached.

    Also, the fire department, for a long time, their recruitment efforts were abysmal, pitiful, to say the least. There was very little outreach in the black and Hispanic and Asian communities in New York City. They’ve made some improvement in that, but still not nearly enough. So, those are the—you know, those are some of the reasons that combine to—

    JUAN GONZALEZ: But was there also—I know that in the police department for many years there was also a psychological component to the application process, and many African Americans and Latinos were deemed psychologically unfit—


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