Why Should Fire Departments Diversify?

The New York Times ran a story on Friday, A Fire Department Under Pressure to Diversify. It described at great length and some depth the ongoing legal action to require the New York City Fire Dept. to hire more blacks and even presented fairly the arguments of some of the NYFD’s defenders. What it did not do was discuss why  a fire department, why any government agency (perhaps, but only perhaps, with the exception of higher education), should “diversify.”

Of course no government (or any other) agency should discriminate on the basis of race. But it is far from clear that an agency that hires on the basis of written exams followed by a pass/fail physical test is discriminating if the only evidence is that “the results of the exams were racially imbalanced.” Nor is it clear that the mission of fire departments — presumably putting out fires — will be enhanced by a politically correct combination of hues of those wielding the hoses.

I do not claim to have reviewed all the allegations and responses in this controversy, and there conceivably could be smoking gun evidence somewhere whose smoke has not reached the precincts of this blog. But the sort of evidence presented in the NYT article, which one would think would be the strongest available, I find considerably less than compelling (actually, much less than less than compelling).

For example, the article mentions a conversation one day after the trial let out with Capt. Paul Washington, a black officer in Engine Company 234, in Brooklyn, and Firefighter John Coombs, president of the Vulcans, the black firefighters organization pressing discrimination claims. The two men, the NYT reported,

complained of a corrosive obliviousness to race, discernible in acts as unsubtle as dinner-table condemnations of affirmative action and as seemingly innocuous as a recreation-room preference for Fox News.

“Our experience is different,” Captain Washington said. “There’s 50 white guys in a firehouse from the same background — middle-class, Long Island, the kids play soccer together — so, yeah, they’re having a ball. But if you’re the one black guy in the house, maybe you ain’t having so much fun.”

It is this experience of difference that forms the emotional underpinning of the suit. Firefighter Coombs said the city had not only ignored this shared experience, but had moved to combat it only under threat of legal action.

Neither the legal merits of lawsuits nor the logical or moral strength or arguments should be judged by their “emotional underpinning,” but nevertheless it seems a stretch even for the New York Times to take seriously the opinion that “acts as unsubtle as dinner-table condemnations of affirmative action and as seemingly innocuous as a recreation-room preference for Fox News” can be viewed by any reasonable person as evidence of “a corrosive obliviousness to race.”

In my view, the more oblivious we are to race, the better. What is in fact corrosive is the wholesale dismissal of the principle that Americans should be treated without regard to race.


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