Is the FDNY really discriminating against African-Americans and Hispanics?
Heather Mac Donald:
THE U.S. Department of Justice this week filed a discrimination suit against the city Fire Department, alleging that the FDNY's written exam is biased against blacks and Hispanics. The evidence for the claim? Only that these minorities don't pass the test at the same rate as whites. Several questions come to mind:
Isn't this farce getting a bit old? Society has spent decades and millions of dollars trying unsuccessfully to close the same
score gap on the SATs, LSATs, MCATs and every other objective standardized test. The claim that any given test is racist simply because blacks and Hispanics don't score as well on it as whites and Asians is absurd. The FDNY has twisted itself in knots for more than 20 years trying to hire more blacks and Hispanics without wholly compromising standards.
Why does the Justice Department believe firefighters don't need to think? The suit alleges that asking prospective firemen to show a minimal competence in basic reasoning and reading skills is an unnecessary and racist job qualification.
The New York Times printed two typical questions from the FDNY exam; they are ridiculously simple. One merely asks exam-takers to regurgitate information just provided in the question about the procedures for subway evacuations. The other requires them to choose a likely suspect in an arson from descriptions of three previous arsons and their likely perpetrators.
The suit argues that such elementary thinking skills are superfluous in a firefighter. Yet the memory of 9/11 should remind the Justice Department that firemen need knowledge of hazardous materials and of complex evacuation procedures. Not only are the technologies for fighting fires becoming more sophisticated, but emergency medical responses depend on the capacity to learn from written material.
Perhaps every lawyer who brought this suit can sign up for a plan whereby the firemen protecting his home and workplace can't process basic written information - and let the rest of us have a firefighting force that stands a chance of being able to perform the job adequately.
Why does the racial composition of a fire department matter? If there were the slightest shred of evidence that the FDNY were deliberately discriminating against qualified minority applicants, that violation of civil rights would demand eradication. But there is no such evidence; that's why the suit relies simply on test-score passing rates - rates, again, that are consistent with those seen in every similar test in America for decades.
Since the lack of proportional representation on fire-fighting crews is not the result of discrimination, why does it matter whether the men saving your life in a fire are white or black?
There is no plausible argument why a fire-fighting crew needs racial diversity to perform well. Playing around with feel-good diversity nonsense is deeply irresponsible when lives are at stake.
How much longer are public and private institutions going to be held hostage to minority academic underperformance? The Center for Constitutional Rights and other racial-advocacy groups point to urban fire departments that have a higher percentage of minorities to prove that the FDNY is discriminating. But these departments have simply caved to similar lawsuits and discarded their qualifications criteria to a degree that New York City has not.
Many an American police or fire department, under litigation pressure, has simply dropped its entrance requirements across the board - guaranteeing a lower skill level for the entire department. At some point, public safety will suffer, if it hasn't already.
What is the Bush administration thinking? The FDNY suit is clearly the product of career attorneys within the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the DOJ, whose life mission consists in alleging phantom racism. But any such suit must surely be cleared with higher-ranked political appointees; indeed, Mayor Bloomberg says that he defended the department to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
But after 9/11, one might have thought that emergency responders would be given a pass on racial pandering from an administration that claims preeminence in homeland security.
Bloomberg has rightly vowed to fight this suit. If law firms or universities want to compromise themselves rather than speak honestly about the racial skills gap, society may be able to live with the loss of efficiency. But firefighting contains no such room for fudging qualifications. The mayor should take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to preserve the city's right to hire its first responders in a color-blind and meritocratic fashion.
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