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Vulcan Society, Black firefighters suit wins ruling against city

Maryam Abdul-Aleem | 4/12/2011, 4:36 p.m.
Vulcan Society, Black firefighters suit wins ruling against city

Smith said "we pass the test but not at a high ranking," but now with the ruling in which the judge has found that the tests are not a good measurement for the task of being a firefighter, Coombs declared that most of the questions on the exams are irrelevant and biased. "The questions are about firefighting, plain and simple. There is no bias here," a FDNY official responded. Coombs asked, "How is that accurate when the written exam has no emphasis on firefighter ability, and over one thousand qualified Blacks and Latinos were not hired for the job?" Most of the exam consists of multiple-choice questions, long reading passages and oral exams, said Coombs, rather than the true important aspect, which is the physical exam. Potential firefighters need to be tested for their physical ability rather than their logical ability.

According to the Vulcans, the reading levels on these exams are very difficult. It is almost impossible to pass such a challenging test. Not only are the tests ridiculously hard, but also, to pass the test, one must score 95 percent correct. People from cities with better school systems are more likely to get hired than people in New York City, which has the worst school system in the state.

There are several alternatives to these biased exams. Washington said it's time that the city took a standard role and took action against these practices of discrimination in the FDNY. He said Bloomberg spent millions of NYC's taxes to fight this case. The federal class action lawsuit was filed as a result of two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges that the Center for Constitutional Rights filed on behalf of the Vulcan Society in 2002, and on behalf of three Black firefighter applicants in 2005. The EEOC reportedly attempted an "informal" resolution with the parties involved in the lawsuit, according to a released statement by the CCR, but the city refused to comply. The Department of Justice then filed a lawsuit against the city as well. "In 2002, the NYC Department of City Planning identified 25 percent of the city's residents as Black and 27 percent of its residents as Hispanic. At the same time, however, only 2.6 percent of its firefighters were Black and 3.7 percent of its firefighters were Hispanic," the judge said. "When this litigation commenced in 2007, the percentages of Black and Hispanic firefighters had increased to just 3.4 percent and 6.7 percent respectively."

Judge Garaufis said those figures boil down to 303 Black and 605 Hispanic firefighters, respectively, out of 8,998. The judge mentioned the case of the New Haven Fire Department, in which the Supreme Court overturned nominee Sonia Sotomayor's ruling. He said that in the case against the FDNY, the exam "actually had a disparate impact upon Black and Hispanic applicants for positions as entry-level firefighters," whereas the New Haven case disregarded promotion exams when minorities were found to have failed the test in large numbers.

Representatives for the city have reportedly said that they do not use the exams that were found discriminatory any more, and have beefed up their recruitment efforts of Black and Hispanic people. The Vulcan Society, however, is calling for an oral test, but the judge still has to issue a remedy. They are back in Brooklyn Federal Court in August. Smith said that he had no personal experience of racism in his 20 years on the job. He said it seemed like the younger, white firefighters were the ones giving Black firefighters a hard time, noting that he had older bosses and that after 1975 there was a "dry spell" in recruitment of Black and brown firefighters. Smith said the judge's ruling would allow "guys that looked like me, my nephews, cousins and decent people like me" to be of service by being a firefighter on equitable terms. The Vulcan Society won a similar lawsuit in 1970s that helped increase the number of Black firefighters, but as Smith hinted, the climb toward equality in hiring practices has been a fight up a steep hill, and not just in New York City but across the United States as well.