By Stephen Millies
Published Jul 15, 2009 2:53 PM
The opinion rendered by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on June 29 upholding a firefighter promotion test in New Haven, Conn., that prolongs the racist status quo never mentioned a noose. That’s what Black firefighter Abdul Lanaird Granger found draped across his boots in his Brooklyn firehouse in 2005. (Daily Challenge, Feb. 11, 2005)
The noose was a death threat to Granger. Thousands of African Americans, Mexicans and Chinese in the United States have been lynched with nooses.
The Fire Department of New York—not far from New Haven—is the country’s largest with 11,500 firefighters. More than 2 million African Americans live in New York City. As of March 2007 the city had only 335 Black firefighters—just 3 percent.
A mere 7.4 percent of New York’s firefighters were Black or Latina/o. (Center for Constitutional Rights news release, July 17, 2007)
Even Bush’s Justice Department was compelled to file a discrimination suit against the FDNY in 2007. Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg did nothing.
In 2006 there were only 32 women firefighters in New York City. (Courier-Life, Sept. 15, 2006) Firehouses could also be dangerous for lesbian and gay firefighters.
Anthony Kennedy and the other four Supreme Court justices who voted with him in the New Haven case ignored this record of bigotry, which is widespread in fire departments across the country.
“Firefighting is a profession in which the legacy of racial discrimination casts an especially long shadow,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent. “It is against this backdrop of entrenched inequality that the promotion process at issue in this litigation should be assessed.”
Admission tests didn’t keep the FDNY from hiring Edward McMillan after he and three other white cops fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, unjustly killing the African immigrant on Feb. 4, 1999. The city had to pay Diallo’s family $3 million in compensation.
Compared with other cities in the United States, the FDNY’s hiring record is atrocious.
Fifty-seven percent of Los Angeles’ firefighters, 51 percent of Philadelphia’s and 40 percent of Boston’s are people of color. The fire departments are 30 percent Black in Baltimore and 23 percent Black in Chicago. (CCR, July 17, 2007)
One third of Cincinnati’s firefighters were Black in 2003.
Behind the racism of New York’s fire department is the racism of Wall Street. The New York Stock Exchange refused to close its doors for Martin Luther King’s birthday until 1998—a dozen years after it had become a federal holiday.
Eight years ago Les Payne wrote a series of columns in Newsday about the miserably small number of Black firefighters in New York City. Payne pointed out that authorities don’t want African Americans seen as heroes and she-roes. (Newsday, May 6, 2001)
Billionaires consider it socially dangerous for a Black or Latina/o firefighter to rescue a white child in Howard Beach or Maspeth. Such lifesaving can cut through racism in all-white neighborhoods.
Legacy of struggle
Judge Kennedy, who’s from California, ought to visit the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles. It’s located in what was a segregated firehouse at Central Avenue and 14th Street.
The Stentorians of Los Angeles City, an organization of Black firefighters, helped start the museum.
Stentorian member Arnett Hartsfield tells the story of what Black firefighters had to put up with in his book “The Old Stentorians.” Hartsfield also remembered courageous white firefighters who defended their African-American comrades.
Black firefighter George W. Bright joined the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1897. After being promoted to lieutenant, all the city’s African-American and Latino firefighters were put under his command. But Bright wasn’t allowed to command white men.
Black firefighters were allowed in only two Los Angeles firehouses until the mid 1950s. An African-American firefighter could only become a captain when a Black captain retired or died. (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 13, 1997)
In 1919 Wesley Williams became the third Black male hired by the New York City fire department. Williams had to fight racist whites in order to keep his job. He helped form the Vulcan Society, the organization of New York’s Black firefighters, in 1940. (“So Others Might Live,” by Joseph F. Kett and Terry Golway.)
This is the legacy of struggle that the Supreme Court wants to reverse.
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