Court ruling victory for African American firefighters

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CHICAGO - It was a long time in coming and a major blow against discrimination in hiring practices here. The 7th US Court of Appeals ordered the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) to hire 111 African Americans who had passed a qualifying exam to become fire fighters in 1995, but then weren't considered after the qualifying criteria was changed.

In its unanimous May 13 ruling, the court also ordered the city of Chicago to pay what could exceed $30 million to 6,000 other African American applicants who also qualified. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund argued the case on behalf of the applicants and the African American Firefighter and Paramedics League.

"I am very surprised and pleased to get this result," Crawford Smith told the Chicago Defender. "I had given up (on the case) because it took so long."

The action puts an end to 16 years of legal obstruction by the City of Chicago and the Daley Administration even after it had confessed it had discriminated. The city had tried to avoid a settlement based on a technicality.

Even the right wing dominated US Supreme Court couldn't deny the blatant discrimination and had ruled unanimously in favor of the African American applicants last May. The high court said they had not waited too long to file a complaint against the act of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which the city had maintained.

The case goes to the heart of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1995 the City of Chicago conducted tests for new firefighters and set a qualifying score of 64. After 26,000 applicants scored above the limit, the CFD announced it had a new criteria and would choose from a much smaller pool of applicants who scored 89 or higher.

Of those who scored between 64-88 on the exam, 6,000 were African American or 36 percent. But when the qualifying score was raised to 89, whites compromised 77 percent and African Americans 9 percent, a clear violation of the "disparate impact" standard of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The CFD used these criteria to hire 11 disproportionately white firefighter classes over the years.

The 89 score set by CFD was an arbitrary number according to Joshua Karsh, an attorney for the African American applicants. Karsh said the number had no bearing on the applicant's qualifications. A Federal Appeals Court agreed with this argument and ruled it discriminatory in 2005.

The CFD has a long legacy of embedded corruption, political machine patronage and racism in hiring and promotion. This also created an environment that pervaded the ranks below and permitted outrageous acts of racism and sexism in many firehouses. The Chicago Tribune had investigated how well the racial composition of fire departments matched the racial composition of major US cities. It found Chicago ranks third worst, only behind New York and Baltimore.

It's hoped the Appeals Court victory will now begin the process of reversing the startling erosion of African Americans firefighters in the department. Despite many high profile efforts and an aggressive outreach campaign to raise the percentage of African Americans firefighters, the numbers have declined steadily since 1995 when they were 22 percent of the force.

While African Americans represent 32.4 percent of the city's population and Latinos constitute 28.9 percent according to the 2010 census, they make up only 17 percent and 10 percent respectively of the fire department. Of the latest class that graduated in 2010, only 13 percent were African American. The situation for women firefighters is even worse.

The US Supreme Court unanimous ruling in May 2010 in the Chicago case was in contrast to its recent pattern of dismantling affirmative action, most specifically in the 2009 case in New Haven, Conn. Then, white firefighters claimed they were passed over in favor of African Americans for promotion despite scoring higher on an exam. The exam had been scrapped after it became clear it would result in a department racial makeup different from the surrounding city. The ruling by the right wing dominated court upended decades of settled law.

"My grandfather was a fireman. My father was a fireman. I've got an uncle and a cousin who are still firemen. The Fire Department raised me. It's a dream I've always had," said Smith.

"I should have been a fireman. I should have been called. It feels good to finally have justice reached. I'm still interested if they're interested in me."

The African American Firefighters and Paramedics League is attempting to find as many of the 6000 applicants as possible to share in the $30 million judgment and be part of the new hiring pool. They are urged to contact the AAFPL on its website

Photo: Associated Press

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