Sotomayor Ruling Exposes Racial Split in Firehouses

Kristin Jensen and Jane Mills, Bloomberg News, June 26, 2009

A racially charged U.S. Supreme Court battle over New Haven, Connecticut, firefighter promotions plays out every day in the city’s Dixwell Fire Station.

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Bruce Galaski, 38, a white firefighter who works along with Ricci in the Dixwell station, said that the promotion dispute has caused resentment in the department.

“Morale is terrible,” said Galaski, a 10-year New Haven veteran who chose not to join the suit against his employer even though he said he has been told he did well enough to qualify for promotion. “It’s tough when you work hard and you don’t get promoted because of the color of your skin.”

While blacks make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they make up just over 8 percent of the almost 300,000 professional firefighters nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. In some cities, the gap is even wider.

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The Supreme Court concludes its current term on June 29 with the New Haven ruling due to be handed down then. The decision will get extra attention because Sotomayor, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Souter, sat on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New York that ruled against the white firefighters last year.

Her position in the Ricci case essentially supports racial preferences embodied in affirmative action plans, said Michael Dorf, a professor at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York.

“It will be front and center for Republicans who want to oppose her,” said Dorf, who has written books on constitutional law and follows the high court closely. “That is the one real arrow they have in their quiver, and I would be surprised if they didn’t shoot it over and over again.”

Senate Republicans such as John Cornyn of Texas and Susan Collins of Maine have expressed concern about the 2nd Circuit court ruling, though opposing Sotomayor, 55, the first Hispanic nominee to the high court, may prove treacherous. The Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on her confirmation beginning July 13.

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In New Haven, the city has been filling the vacant department officer jobs with temporary appointments based on seniority. Firefighters who support Ricci and his colleagues said promotions should be colorblind.

“A lot of guys are hoping there is justice for these guys,” said Mike Bresnan, president of the local Concerned American Firefighters Association in Philadelphia. “Some guys study for years, and for all that time and effort to be thrown out because the city doesn’t like the color of the list is despicable.”

In Philadelphia, five firefighters sued in 2007, claiming the city and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers conspired to manipulate the outcome of a promotional exam to favor blacks. The city settled the suit in January for undisclosed terms.

In Houston, seven minority firefighters sued the city last year over exams used to select captains and senior captains. Dennis Thompson, an attorney for the firefighters, said the tests “in essence inflate the performance of whites over minorities.”

‘Be a Dinosaur’

Diversity and cultural experiences are important for first responders, Thompson said. “You can embrace it and adapt or you can fight it and be a dinosaur,” he said.

Firefighters say diversity can be especially important in emergencies. Victims may feel more comfortable when they see first responders who look similar to them or understand their neighborhoods, they say.

White members of Engine Company 60 on the South Side of Chicago see it differently. The mention of New Haven drew a cluster of firefighters who said they have seen examples of reverse discrimination and voiced concern that procedures used to increase diversity in the higher ranks may harm the public.

Outstanding Officers

“Most of the officers are outstanding, but the ones who trickle through the cracks aren’t as well qualified as they should be,” said Captain Lee Basile, 47, a 27-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department. Asked whether the current system, which also allows supervisors to make “merit” promotions regardless of race or test scores, puts citizens’ safety at risk, Basile said, “absolutely.”

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[Gary] Tinney [a black firefighter who didn’t do well enough to qualify for a promotion] also works at the Dixwell firehouse. In an interview last week, the 44-year-old lieutenant said he is concerned about the lack of diversity in the officer ranks and doesn’t see a chance for improvement any time soon.

“This particular lawsuit has set us back 45 years,” Tinney said.

Ricci, 35, and other firefighters argued that they had studied hard and wanted the test to count no matter how they did. Ricci described how his dyslexia required him to spend hundreds of dollars to pay someone to read the materials into a tape as he studied as many as 13 hours a day to prepare.

No Second-Best

“I don’t even know if I made it,” Ricci said, according to the meeting transcripts. “But the people who passed should be promoted. When your life’s on the line, second-best may not be good enough.” Ricci isn’t granting interviews now.

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