FDNY accused of racism for using exams that African-American and Hispanic candidates fail at much higher rates than whites
The United States Department of Justice filed a civil rights suit against New York City yesterday over the Fire Department’s written entrance exam, which black and Hispanic candidates fail at much higher rates than whites. The suit claims that the city has never proved a link between test scores and performance as a firefighter.
The suit is the latest in a series of legal attempts going back decades to diversify the Fire Department, which is more than 90 percent white. Three percent of the department’s 11,000 firefighters are black and 4.5 percent are Hispanic, a tiny proportion in a city where more than half the population is black or Hispanic.
The city’s testing practices “do not select the firefighter applicants who will best perform their important public safety mission, while disproportionately screening out large numbers of qualified black and Hispanic applicants,” Wan J. Kim, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
In many other large cities, the percentage of minority firefighters is much higher, often as a result of court-ordered integration; for example, more than 40 percent of firefighters in Los Angeles and Philadelphia are black or Hispanic.
Officials in New York City, though, argue that great strides have been made in recent years in recruiting black and Hispanic firefighters, that the city has relaxed the education requirement, and that the percentage of black and Hispanic hires has tripled in the past 10 years. Three times as many blacks and twice as many Hispanics took the most recent firefighter test, offered in January, as the previous one, in 2002. And the most recent test was overhauled to screen for a broader range of abilities, giving blacks and Hispanics a better chance of achieving higher grades, the city said.
“The only rational order that could come out of this would be for the judge to order us to do what we have already done,” Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declared that the city would fight the suit. “The Justice Department is not going to tell us what to do,” he told reporters. “We try to do what’s right in this city, and if they disagree they’re welcome to go to court with us.”
The suit, filed in United States District Court in Brooklyn, is based on the 1999 and 2002 tests, the latter of which is still being used to generate the list of potential hires (scores on the January 2007 test have not been announced). It seeks to change the Fire Department’s screening process and to “make whole” black and Hispanic applicants harmed by the tests.
Like most Civil Service agencies, the Fire Department requires applicants to pass a written multiple-choice test and gives preference to those who score highest. Those who pass the test must then pass a test of strength, endurance and agility.
Sample questions from test-preparation booklets the city released in the late 1990s test the prospective firefighter’s skills at reading comprehension, deductive reasoning, logic, spatial orientation and mathematics.
For example, a passage on subway evacuations is followed by questions on what to do in what order. In another question, the reader is given descriptions of suspects in three arsons, then asked which of those fires the suspect in a fourth arson should be linked to.
According to the Justice Department, 16.4 percent of black candidates and 7.2 percent of Hispanic candidates failed the 2002 written test by scoring below 70, compared with 2.8 percent of white candidates. The ranks of those who scored 95 or above — the range that represents the bulk of applicants who are hired — included 35 percent of all whites who passed the test but only 12.2 percent of blacks and 21 percent of Hispanics who passed, the Justice Department said.
Doesn't the Justice Department have anything better to do than go after the FDNY for not hiring applicants who are too stupid to pass the exam?
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