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New York to the DOJ: Hands Off Our Fire Department

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New York to the DOJ: Hands Off Our Fire Department

Firefighting is no place for racial politics. May 23, 2007

The Department of Justice has just filed a discrimination suit against the New York City Fire Department, alleging that the written exam for department eligibility is biased against blacks and Hispanics, because their pass rate is lower than for whites. Several questions come to mind, namely:

—Isn’t this farce getting a bit old? In the 1970s, when knowledge about the cognitive skills gap between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics, on the other, was less widespread, it may have seemed plausible that disparities in passing rates resulted from biased tests or biased test-administering institutions. Today, however, after society has spent decades and millions of dollars trying unsuccessfully to close the test score gap on the SATs, LSATs, MCATs, NAEP, and every other objective standardized test, the claim that any given test is racist simply because blacks and Hispanics don’t score as well on it as whites and Asians is absurd. The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) has twisted itself in knots for over 20 years trying to hire more blacks and Hispanics without wholly compromising standards.

—Will the Justice Department please keep its hands off of our Fire Department? The DOJ suit alleges that asking prospective firemen to show a minimal competence in basic reasoning and reading skills is an unnecessary and racist job qualification. The New York Times printed two typical questions from the New York exam; they are ridiculously simple. In one, exam takers are asked to regurgitate information just provided in the question about the procedures for subway evacuations; in another, test takers are to choose a likely suspect in an arson from descriptions of three previous arsons and their likely perpetrators. The Justice Department argues that such elementary thinking skills are superfluous in a firefighter.

Perhaps every attorney who brought this suit, from the DOJ to the Center for Constitutional Rights, can sign up for a plan whereby the firemen protecting his home and business can’t process basic written information. The rest of us can have a fire-fighting force that stands a chance of being able to perform the job adequately. The idea that all you need in fire-fighting today is a pair of strong arms is fanciful (and of course even that requirement has been lifted to get women into firehouses). The memory of September 11 should remind the Justice Department that firemen need knowledge of hazardous materials and of complex evacuation procedures; not only are the technologies for fighting fires becoming more sophisticated, but emergency medical responses depend on the capacity to learn from written material.

—Why does the racial composition of a fire department matter? Without question, if there were the slightest shred of evidence that the FDNY was deliberately discriminating against qualified minority applicants, such a violation of civil rights should be roundly denounced, and eradicated. There is no such evidence, however, which is why the DOJ suit relies simply on test-score passing rates—rates consistent with minority performance on every other cognitive test in living memory. Given that the lack of proportional representation on fire-fighting crews is not the result of discrimination, why does it matter if the men saving your life in a fire are white, black, or purple?

Of course, the concern over racial composition is not confined to public services. University administrators face a similar dilemma: persistent underqualification of blacks and Hispanics for college, and an absence of evidence of bias in entrance requirements. In response, they have generated a new rationale for admissions double standards: that whites and Asians can’t be properly educated without a critical mass of blacks and Hispanics in their schools. This rationale, used by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to uphold racial preferences in state universities, has been shown to be wholly specious, even in a university context. In the context of putting out life-threatening fires, it is beyond ludicrous. There is no plausible argument why a fire-fighting crew needs racial diversity to perform well. Playing around with feel-good diversity nonsense is deeply irresponsible when lives may be at stake.

—How much longer are public and private institutions going to be held hostage to black and Hispanic academic failure? The Center for Constitutional Rights and other racial advocacy groups point to urban fire departments that have a higher percentage of minorities to prove that the FDNY is discriminating. But these departments have simply caved in to similar law suits and discarded their qualifications criteria to a degree that New York has not. Organizations around the country are under relentless pressure to change merit standards because of black and Hispanic underachievement, and most have capitulated to some degree. Almost none have been willing to make the case that disproportionate racial representation stems from the lack of qualified candidates, not from hidden sources of bias.

Many a police or fire department, under litigation pressure, has simply dropped its entrance requirements across the board, insuring a lower skill level for the entire department, rather than a sub-group within it. At some point, public safety will suffer.

If the problem of differential skill rates is to be solved, it will require changing the culture of underrepresented minorities, so that they value education and develop the discipline to learn the building blocks of basic academic success. (Again, asking a fireman to repeat simple written facts that he has just read is hardly asking for much.) If the career attorneys at DOJ or at the Center for Constitutional Rights really wanted to make a difference in minority passing rates on civil service exams, they would spend their time tutoring and mentoring minority males, not suing critical public entities like police and fire departments.

—What is the Bush Administration thinking? The FDNY suit is clearly the product of career attorneys within the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the DOJ, whose life mission consists in going after phantom racism. But any such suit must surely be cleared with higher-ranked political appointees; indeed, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says that he defended the department to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, according to the New York Daily News. Republican susceptibility to race-mongering is well-documented, but after 9/11, one might have thought that emergency responders would get a pass on racial pandering from an administration that claims preeminence in homeland security.

—Aren’t blacks getting embarrassed by this sort of excuse-making? The demand for double standards is becoming ever more pathetic. A better route to racial and ethnic pride would be accomplishment, not promoting the notion that one is ineradicably unable to compete and thus in need of special treatment. No black athlete demands that a race track be shortened or a basketball hoop lowered to accommodate him. When will would-be black and Hispanic journeymen and professionals decide to beat whites and Asians at their own game?

Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to fight this suit, and he is right to do so. If law firms or universities want to compromise themselves rather than speak honestly about the racial skills gap, society may be able to live with the loss of efficiency. But fire-fighting contains no such room for fudging qualifications. Mayor Bloomberg should take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to preserve the city’s right to hire its first responders in a color-blind and meritocratic fashion.

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