NEW YORK — The storied New York Fire Department was accused Monday of being plagued by racism against its tiny minority of black firefighters.
The start of the third week of a federal discrimination trial saw a representative for one of the lead plaintiffs — the Vulcan Society for black firefighters — testify about a corrosive atmosphere.
Paul Washington, a firefighter captain and former head of the Vulcan Society, said that on several occasions he had overheard white firefighters, who make up about 90 percent of the department, refer to “niggers.”
“Someone didn’t know I was there and would say something about niggers and I’d turn and there’d be a confrontation,” Washington said in Brooklyn federal court.
At an all-white fire house where he was temporarily stationed, “they would play a game every night where they’d pick someone and say ‘you’re the nigger tonight,’” meaning that person would do the menial jobs, Washington testified.
In another incident, he referred to a flier announcing a Vulcan Society memorial ceremony for black firefighters killed during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
On the flier — which was presented in court — someone had scrawled “Lick me” and “What about the white guys?” The word “black” was written over the request that guests come in dress uniform “with white gloves.”
In addition, the guest list, which featured the black former New York mayor David Dinkins, had been defaced to include rap stars.
Thundering around on immaculately maintained red trucks, the city’s so-called “Bravest” are local heroes, admired for their professionalism and lauded for their self-sacrifice on 9/11, when 343 died in the collapsing Twin Towers.
With generous pay, pension and vacation, the job is seen as a highly attractive way to enter the middle class.
But the discrimination trial in Brooklyn is challenging the FDNY’s reputation and could see the judge imposing drastic change in the way recruitment is done.
A quarter of New York’s population is black and 27 percent Hispanic, but just 3.4 percent of firefighters are black and 6.7 percent Latino, the plaintiffs say.
The fire department says recruitment in the past did not pay enough attention to minorities, but that this has changed, with a high-volume campaign now underway in black and Hispanic-focused media, as well as street recruitment drives.
Paul Mannix, head of a group of firefighters lobbying against court-imposed changes, said racism did not explain the white-dominated firefighter statistics.
“You cannot make this a black-and-white issue,” he told AFP. “We’re not interested in keeping anyone out of this job, other than those who can’t do it.”
“I can tell you that the equal opportunity is there — more than equal opportunity, because we are bending over backwards to attract minorities,” he said.
But on the witness stand, Washington said that racist attitude made advancement harder for black firefighters even when they did get into the department.
For example, newly promoted lieutenants typically are allowed to begin practicing their role on the job several weeks before formally taking up the new rank.
However, when Washington was promoted at the same time as a white firefighter in the same unit, “he got to operate as a lieutenant and I didn’t. Stuff like that has more impact than the overt things.”
Washington said anyone complaining about alleged racist incidents faced being “ostracized” in fire houses.
“You’re going to be shunned,” he said. “Things like this can be very hurtful to your career.”
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