It’s no secret that police forces across the country often fail to resemble the communities they patrol. Over the last year, a series of tragic deaths have raised questions about the challenges such racial divides pose to police-community relations. But these disparities are also a matter of economic justice.  

The civil service has been a great pathway into the middle-class for black families. But as a general rule, the higher-paying or more prestigious a job is, the whiter the hiring pool becomes. Blacks and Latinos have not been able to land a proportionate share of the higher-paying, higher-profile jobs—like cops and firefighters—even though many cities and states use a hiring system that’s supposed to be color-blind and prejudice free. That seems an especially pressing concern with black unemployment in double digits for more than a decade—for black men, it currently stands upwards of 11 percent, compared to 4.4 percent for white men.

In 2002, a group of black firefighters filed a landmark discrimination complaint against the New York City Fire Department—a complaint that became United States v. City of New York, a Title VII civil-rights lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice. The ensuing legal fight laid bare the complicated reasons for the persistence of these racial disparities.

The suit was bitterly contested in court by Mayor Michael Bloomberg until a Brooklyn judge ruled in 2010 that the city had discriminated against black and Latino firefighter applicants by giving a written entrance exam that unfairly weeded out minorities.

The lawsuit and the disparate-impact ruling it produced ignited a powder keg of resentment and rage among many rank-and-file firefighters, known as New York’s Bravest. Many decried the “special treatment” given to blacks.  

Few stopped to ask if the city was truly being well-served by following the civil-service hiring process—a system devised more than 100 years ago to break the corrupt grip of Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed. Tweed leveraged waves of Irish Catholic immigrant voters into a powerful base by doling out city jobs. Even after the so-called “merit system” of Civil Service was imposed, his machine-made patronage dominated city hiring.

New York City, like many other municipal, state, and federal governments, has clung to the civil-service process of administering a standard written test for most of its city jobs. Some, like the FDNY and NYPD, also require rigorous physical exams and mental health and background checks. Candidates are ranked based on their scores and picked from a list—and in theory, it’s a level playing field that gives all applicants an equal chance.

Yet in practice, it’s never been quite as even-keeled as its proponents want people to believe. One of the FDNY’s first black firefighters, Wesley Williams, was hired in 1919 with an outstanding score on the written and a perfect score on the physical—only one other man in the department’s history could claim that. His character reference—something all candidates had to produce—was written by former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. And even then, the Tammany-controlled FDNY waitlisted him for as long as possible.

Williams did eventually get into the FDNY—only to confront behavior among some of his fellow Bravest that resembled the terrible bigotry of the Jim Crow south. By the end of the 1930s, under Tammany Mayor Jimmy Walker, there were only four African Americans in the FDNY—even as hundreds of thousands came north to look for work in the midst of the Great Depression. Many of them managed to find it in other city agencies in New York, but not among the Bravest. It took an overhaul of the civil-service system by incoming Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1938 to break the de facto black lockout. But even as African Americans took 100 slots within the 6,000 strong department, they couldn’t achieve the same parity within the FDNY that they achieved in other parts of city government.

Women, too, were unable to break into the brotherhood in any meaningful way, despite a lawsuit brought by pioneer Brenda Berkman that in 1982 forced firehouse doors to open for 42 trailblazers. Three decades later, there are 46 women firefighters in the FDNY—and the department has only just moved to retro-fit its firehouses so the women have separate bathrooms.

But the agency has never come close to reflecting the diversity of the city it serves. Until the Vulcan Society, the association of black firefighters, filed its recent lawsuit, there had never been more than 650 black Bravest on a force that grew to 11,000—in a city where 26 percent of the population is African American.


The Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters, stands in solidarity outside of a Brooklyn courthouse. (Courtesy of Michel Friang)

The reasons for the racial imbalance are varied and complex. The obstacles confronted by black firefighter applicants started with the SAT-like written test administered by the city. With the competition so tough—as many as 40,000 applicants vying for 2,500 to 3,500 positions every four years—any candidate who scores below a 95 has scant chance of getting hired. Black applicants, on average, score well above the failing mark of 70—but many score just below actual hiring contention.

Defenders of the system argued that these applicants had simply failed to measure up; the Vulcans contended that the test was irrelevant to the job. Yet the city steadfastly refused to analyze its written entrance test—a process known as validation—to see what, if anything, it actually proved about a candidate’s ability to perform well as a firefighter.  It was the equivalent, the Vulcans argued, of having the Yankees give an SAT exam to decide who would play shortstop. Fire Department honchos, never eager to embrace change, also dug in their heels.

Other challenges waited for those who did get through, including medical checks and background investigations, all places where black candidates got washed out at higher rates than other groups. The Vulcans, who since the 1940s had dedicated countless hours to recruitment in black communities, watched every hiring cycle in frustration, as their initial number of applicants got cut to a trickle. Their concern that too many candidates of color were getting wiped out by the in-house background checks were waved away.

In 1988, there were 1,600 African American candidates, in a year when only 15,000 people actually took the firefighter exam. That made them 10.85 percent of the pool. But only 112 scored in the top 5,000, about 2.3 percent. Over the next few years, the city hired 2,256 firefighters from that list—and only 29 were black. That was less than 1.3 percent, a drastic drop from the 10.85 percent who applied, and roughly half of the 2.3 percent who’d been top scorers.

The FDNY, through a unique combination of factors, is a glaring local example of a strange national dichotomy. In the lower-paid, less competitive civil-service positions—in the Post Office, for example, or in middle-management office jobs—blacks have climbed the color-blind rungs of the civil-service hiring ladder with great success, according to Valerie Wilson, who heads up the Race, Ethnicity, and Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute. So much so, in fact, that as The New York Times reported just last week, cuts to government jobs and reductions of public-sector positions hit African Americans the hardest among all groups.

Yet, on average, America’s police and fire departments—particularly across the northeast and parts of the midwest—look more like the FDNY than the NYPD, in terms of diversity. It’s no coincidence the Department of Justice has stepped in to investigate fire departments in Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville, Florida. Even in famously progressive New York City, it took a fraught and draining court battle to force the FDNY and City Hall to acknowledge that the “merit system” of hiring proved to be anything but color-blind.

On the surface, it might seem like the discrimination challenges launched against the FDNY have nothing to do with the racial angst that erupted in Ferguson or Baltimore.

But in truth, the FDNY’s 150 years of insular homogeneity offers a valuable case study on the pluses and minuses of civil service—and raises the question as to whether a pre-20th century hiring system works for modern America at all.