New York City settles suit by minority firemen

NEW YORK – Under the leadership of New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, a settlement has been reached in a discrimination suit filed by the Vulcan Society (representing minority firefighters) and the city over the use of racially based civil service tests that favored white applicants.

The case dates back to 2007 [billionaire Michael Bloomberg was mayor] when a federal court found the city guilty of using racially biased tests. The city did not accept the ruling and appealed. Now, acceptance of that ruling by Mayor de Blasio brings an end to what many saw as disgraceful discrimination by the city against minority firefighters and minority applicants for firefighter jobs.

There are some groups who still try and defend racist past practices, however. One example can be found in the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, which claims, untruthfully, that de Blasio “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” (What the paper is saying is that the city was about to have won its case when the mayor entered the fray and admitted the city had indeed discriminated against the minority firemen and job applicants.) 

The New York Post editorial is a distortion of the facts.

In the first place there was no “victory” on the horizon. The editorial falsely claims that the “case had been moving in the FDNY’s direction” because it was on appeal due to a finding that the judge handling it (Nicholas Garauflis) “had raised so much doubt about his impartiality that a key part of the case was assigned to another judge.”

 The Post adds, “Even so…. the city agreed to shell out $98 million in back pay, medical benefits and interest to the suing firefighters.” The Post calls this “surrender.”

Actually it was a victory for the FDNY and the city.

The Post’s version is misleading as it gives the impression that the charge of “racism” against the FDNY was in doubt and only if that were true would the case be “moving in the FDNY’s direction” and maybe the $98 million need not be “shelled out.” What is the truth?

Judge Garauflis found the FDNY guilty of “unlawful disparate impact” with respect to its testing policy. This is a technical legal term but simply put it means that it is illegal to give civil service tests that don’t really test for knowledge that is related to job performance and have a negative effect on groups of people by failing them so they can’t get the job. In this case the test is illegal because it has nothing really to do with the job being tested for.

The FDNY’s test was such a test and it can be called “racist” because it had the effect of preventing minorities in general from being employed by the department. Even after this was pointed out to the department it continued to use such tests-this is the reason for the suit. This finding was not questioned by the appeals court and the $98 million and other penalties were going to go into effect anyway.

What the appeals court objected to was Judge Garauflis’ additional finding that the NYFD had intentionally designed the tests to be discriminatory. The appeals court appointed another judge to handle this issue. But it also left Judge Garauflis in charge of the financial and other penalties in the case so there was no “shelling out” of any monies by the mayor.

Why was the settlement a victory and not a “surrender.”? Because the settlement entailed the city accepting the verdict of “unlawful disparate impact” which was not on appeal anyway and the Vulcan Society withdrew its complaint that this was the result of a deliberate plan to discriminate. Thus the appeal was ended.

The NYFD can feel, in some sense, vindicated because it can claim that it never 
deliberately discriminated against minorities, and hence the city is not “racist” in that sense. It is also a victory for the people of New York City because when a racist practice, though unintended, is pointed out they have a mayor who moves to correct it rathe3r than to cover it up.

The only defeat here is the one suffered by The New York Post.

Photo: At the swearing in of new Probationary Firefighters. FDNY Facebook page.


Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins has a background in philisophy, anthropology and archeology. He writes from New York, NY. Riggins was associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.