David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

All you can do is shake your head in disgust at a New York City Fire Department chief’s lawsuit claiming he was denied a promotion because he refused to recant his racially charged remarks about the department’s diversity efforts.

Deputy Assistant Chief of Operations Michael F. Gala Jr.’s letters to the editor in recent years could not be dismissed as simply awkward. They were head-on racially provocative, and his lawsuit asking a federal court to order his promotion on First Amendment grounds suggests he believes racism is good office politics. “I am tired of listening to black and female firefighters who have earned their positions . . . condemn the same system that facilitated that rise,” Gala wrote in a 2008 letter to the editor of a civil service newspaper.

The position Gala seeks, Assistant Chief of Department, assumes a commitment to equal opportunities for underrepresented groups. Gala’s refusal to renounce his slander, therefore, is like an arsonist asking to teach fire safety. Sadly, his agitation is emblematic of the wink-and-nod approval over the years from the FDNY unions and executive office.

I am angry. After all the protests, promises, lawsuits, consent decrees and settlement payouts by New York City, we must still suffer people like Gala. His lawsuit reveals something about the bigoted firefighter’s id, completely unconscious and instinctual: a deep-seated fear of women and people of color. At base, the FDNY has a leadership problem. It will not exorcise its deep-seated racism until someone with experiences and perspectives that have never been heretofore represented among its leadership is appointed to lead the department.

If it is true that immoral leadership can debase an organization, it follows that moral leadership can uplift. The FDNY’s race problem must be corrected by overt, forceful instruction on how to do what is right, through example, habituation and unwavering commitment.

Gala’s lawsuit reminds the field of mayoral candidates the FDNY must be high on their agenda of things to fix. They should learn from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s doublespeak, broken promises and missed opportunities to make lasting change at the FDNY – and at the NYPD, for that matter. There are a few simple steps that would make a world of difference. The biggest is appointing a progressive, forward-thinking chief. The other steps include imposing a residency requirement for FDNY recruits, publicly embracing the Vulcan Society, living up to the provisions of the 2014 settlement, and restoring the Cadet Corps program aimed at minority recruits, started by the late David Dinkins and cancelled by Rudolph Giuliani.

The years-long fight against FDNY’s prejudice precedes that of the New York City Police, even though Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City and across the nation have focused public attention on police reform. The NYPD is the more high-profile target because of some critical caveats worth mentioning.

First, no one has accused the FDNY of unfair treatment in the service it delivers to New York City citizens. It has never been suggested that the FDNY refused to rescue Blacks and Latinos, allowed their homes to burn, or choked a citizen to death.

The second caveat is, the FDNY’s civil rights problem is rooted in discrimination in public accommodation; white firefighters have fought like hell to deny Blacks and Latinos membership to “their” club. We must remember that there was a time in this city when white firefighters refused to live in the same firehouse and work in close quarters with people of color.

Yet another caveat is illustrated by asking a simple question: Who comes to mind when you picture a typical firefighter? If you say a white man, that’s understandable. The FDNY’s uniformed firefighting division is 77 percent white, 12 percent Latino, 8 percent Black and 2 percent Asian, according to a 2020 report released by the New York City Council.

This problem we face, therefore, is symptomatic of a deep and lasting wound. Black firefighters have to compensate for stereotyped assumptions of inferior competence. That was the point of Gala’s slanders – that “his” beloved department was lowering its standards for the sake of affirmative action. And for the record, I do not believe Gala’s views are representative of the majority of the city’s firefighters — men and women who bravely and unselfishly put their lives on the line every day.

Mentoring of women and people of color must be integrated into the recruitment process, despite objections from the FDNY firefighters’ union. That would go a long way toward signaling a career path that might otherwise seem closed.

And when – not if – more people of color join the FDNY, those of Gala’s ilk need not worry. We won’t do to them what he’s trying to do to us.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.