FDNY's Black Firefighter Problem

Meet the black candidates who aced the FDNY's supposedly racist entrance exam—and still can't become firefighters

The answer to that question is so frustrating and strange, you may need to smoke a few picograms of something while operating an exocraft to grasp it all.

Nafis Sabir is an African-American who wants to be a New York City firefighter. When he sat for the city’s most recent exam in January 2007, known as test “6019,” he scored in the top handful out of nearly 22,000 candidates.

“I was 29 at the time,” the former Marine says, “and the test wasn’t that hard. You study for it, and it takes some discipline. But I already had a lot of life experience to do that. Maybe some younger guys don’t.”

Vulcan Society president Paul Washington: "This job is the city's best-kept secret," he says. But "that test is wiping us out."
Ashlei Quinones
Vulcan Society president Paul Washington: "This job is the city's best-kept secret," he says. But "that test is wiping us out."

Sabir says the exam answers were often comically obvious. “They might ask, ‘Someone comes in the firehouse and looks at you with a crazy look. You can speak to him about it, talk to a supervisor, or punch him in the face. Which one should you not do?’ ” He laughs joylessly. If the test was easy, subsequent events have been difficult.

Although Sabir’s results should have been good enough to get him in, for the past three years, he and hundreds of others have been stuck in a strange kind of limbo. Initially, their start date at the Fire Academy was delayed by budget shortfalls. Then, he and his classmates learned that the test they aced was found to be racist by the federal court, and they wouldn’t be allowed to take positions in the department until a better test could be devised, or the city could come up with some other way to hire new firefighters.

In other words, Sabir, a black man, can’t get a job because he passed a test the court believes was intended to make him fail because of his race.

“First, they said they couldn’t hire us because of money. Then they said they couldn’t because minorities didn’t score well. I don’t get it,” says David Cargin, another African-American man in the same position.

Cargin had done well on the test in part, he says, because he, like others, had taken advantage of the preparation that was offered to applicants. “The city offered free classes on how to study for the test,” he says. He alternated between the classes and the gym—where the city provided free training for a physical test—before taking the written exam.

Even though he doesn’t come from a firefighting family, Cargin, 29, says he didn’t consider that a problem. “Does having a parent on the job [as a firefighter] give you an advantage? Yeah. Is it an unreasonable advantage? No,” he says.

Thirty-two-year-old Dion Hines is another black member of the class who tested high but is going nowhere. He takes issue with the court’s conclusion that the entrance exam is unfair to African-Americans or anyone else. “They blatantly say that the test is the problem. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t require a higher degree of education,” he says. “There are hypothetical situations, and they give you information, and you have to regurgitate that information. You don’t need to already be a firefighter to understand it.”

But the federal courts have repeatedly blamed entrance examinations as part of the FDNY’s inability to hire more minorities. In 1971, a group of police officers successfully sued the city over discriminatory hiring (Guardians Association of New York City v. the Civil Service Commission) under the federal Civil Rights Act. Two years later, a group of black firefighters, the New York Vulcan Society, was able to win a similar case, which forced the city to adopt hiring quotas. Within a couple of years, however, the city abandoned that approach before any progress could be made.

As a result of the city’s inaction, the whiteness of the FDNY is blatant and embarrassing. (How bad is it? The most recent lawsuit by the federal government was initiated by President George W. Bush’s Justice Department.)

In 1971, blacks constituted 32 percent of the city’s population, but only 5 percent of the fire department. Almost four decades later, only 3.4 percent of the FDNY is black, and less than 7 percent is Latino. In a city with only a 35 percent white population, the FDNY is about 90 percent white. (Women are also woefully underrepresented in the FDNY, but that’s allowable under federal law because of the physical requirements involved in firefighting, which proportionally fewer women can meet.)

Other city departments don’t have such stark numbers. The NYPD, for example, is 16.6 percent black and 18 percent Latino. Those levels are each lower than the actual population, but the practices used to reach them are within federal guidelines.

New York’s fire department is also whiter than those in other cities. Of the fire departments in eight of the nation’s largest cities, New York’s is dead last in diversity.

The FDNY perennially can’t seem to lift its minority hiring numbers at all. “This pattern of underrepresentation has remained essentially unchanged since at least the 1960s,” U.S. Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis recently wrote in one of many rulings against the city, later adding, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

« Previous Page
Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets