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Black firefighters claim victory against biased test
Published Aug 3, 2009 8:43 PM
Just a month after the U.S. Supreme Court struck a racist blow against civil
rights in a New Haven, Conn., firefighters’ case, Black and Latina/o
firefighters and candidates won an important victory in New York City. Federal
Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis ruled July 22 that two versions of a written hiring
exam used by the Fire Department of New York unfairly excluded more than 1,000
candidates of color.
The decision came in a class-action lawsuit brought by the Vulcan Society, a
Black firefighters’ organization, and three candidates who were excluded
based on the tests. The court found that the city’s “reliance on
these examinations constitutes employment discrimination in violation of Title
VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1984.”
Vulcan Society news conference at
City Hall, July 23. From left: Vulcan
President Paul Washington;
Alison Roh Park, Center for
President John Coombs; Darius
Charney, CCR attorney.
Photos: Center for Constitutional Rights
Attorney Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which
represents the Vulcans, called the ruling “a tremendous victory that
we’ve been fighting toward for over seven years.”
New York has the most unrepresentative fire department of any major U.S. city.
Just 3.4 percent of the 11,000 firefighters here are Black, and only 6.7
percent are Latina/o, in a city where people of color make up more than half of
the population. In contrast, people of color make up 40 percent of firefighters
in Boston, 51 percent in Philadelphia and 57 percent in Los Angeles.
In April, attorneys from CCR, Levy Ratner and Scott & Scott asked Judge
Garaufis to grant summary judgment, eliminating the need for a trial. With his
July 22 decision, Garaufis agreed that there was overwhelming evidence of
“When an employment test is not adequately related to the job for which
it tests—and when the test adversely affects minority groups—we may
not fall back on the notion that better test-takers make better
employees,” Garaufis wrote.
Since filing suit in 2002, the Vulcans have continued to mobilize, rallying
community and activist support for subsequent court hearings and news
conferences. The case garnered broad community support because, as Vulcan past
president Paul Washington said, “Racial discrimination is still alive and
well in our city’s institutions.”
Billionaire mayor defends test
In its June decision Ricci v. DeStafano, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with 22
white firefighters and one Latino firefighter in New Haven who claimed that
dropping a written exam for job promotions constituted “reverse
After this attack on civil rights, New York’s billionaire Mayor Michael
Bloomberg again publicly championed the FDNY exam, confident that the
department could continue its discrimination unimpeded.
But he was wrong. Judge Garaufis’ decision is a major embarrassment for
the mayor, who has continued the reactionary policies of his predecessor, Rudy
Giuliani, under a smokescreen of being more even-handed and
Bloomberg and Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta jumped to the defense of the
latest revision of the test, enacted last year. The Vulcan Society has called
for abolishing the written test altogether.
As Vulcan Society President John Coombs said in a July 16 Daily News op-ed,
“While Scoppetta says that on the most recent exam, 33 percent of the top
4,000 test-passers were minorities, Black and Latino candidates tend to be
bunched at the bottom of that list. Since the FDNY is currently doing no hiring
at all, it is very likely that these candidates will never be hired, or that
they will wait on the list for three or four years, unlike their white
Writing in the July 27 New York Daily News, columnist Errol Louis notes,
“Many credible institutions tried, with zero success, to convince
Bloomberg and Scoppetta that the fire exam needed a reworking. The City’s
own Equal Employment Practices Commission, an independent watchdog, presented
City Hall with a long account of nearly a decade’s worth of complaints
about the fire test and a plea to re-examine it. They were ignored.”
Errol observes, “According to court documents, a researcher with the
Department of Citywide Administrative Services (who isn’t a fireman)
interviewed six firefighters about what might make a good employee, then had 10
more add ideas. These were then converted into exam questions—but there
was no objective, research-based inquiry into whether the final questions
screened for or predicted actual job performance.
“One member of the DCAS panel testified under oath that he
‘probably didn’t know’ what inductive reasoning, one of the
test areas, even meant. Others were unsure of the meaning of ‘problem
sensitivity,’ ‘visualization,’ ‘time sharing’ and
other skills the test is supposed to measure.”
Impact on school testing
Bloomberg and his Wall Street cronies are also worried about the impact the
Vulcan decision may have on their regime of standardized testing in the
city’s public schools. Bloomberg is currently negotiating with the New
York State legislature to retain his mayoral dictatorship over the schools.
This policy, which discourages real education for the mostly people of color
and poor youths in city schools and rewards faculty who “teach to the
test,” is a cornerstone of Bloomberg’s current re-election
campaign. Bloomberg wants to avoid a wide discussion of the well-documented
bias of these tests against students of color, as well as the need for
community control and getting police out of the schools.
It is unclear what effect the Supreme Court’s Ricci decision may have on
the New York ruling. Negotiations between the Vulcans and city officials are
likely to continue. Judge Garaufis will issue his recommendations in the fall.
But the struggle to eliminate the biased testing process will continue.
“The mayor always defends this test by saying we need to select the best
firefighters,” said CCR attorney Shayana Kadidal. “But you
absolutely can’t use a paper-and-pencil test to measure who will have
courage in a fire or who will work well in a team, or any of the other
characteristics that make good firefighters.”
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