Court Orders Chicago To Hire 111 Black Firefighters

Originally published on May 16, 2011 1:21 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, today 40 students will end their journey to retrace the route of the Freedom Riders of 1961. We'll talk with two of the students helping to mark the 50th anniversary of that historic civil rights demonstration. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we go to Chicago, where former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is scheduled to be sworn in today as the city's new mayor. He inherits a projected budget shortfall that's just been made worse. A recent federal court ruling ordered the city to pay $30 million in damages to 6,000 African-Americans who had been passed over for jobs as city firefighters.

And the Chicago Fire Department was ordered to hire another 111 black candidates who were denied jobs in 1995 all because of a test administered that year that the black firefighters argued successfully, it turns out, did not in fact measure the ability to be a firefighter.

We wanted to know more about the long history of this case, which found its way to the Supreme Court last year. So we caught up with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who's been following this case closely over the years. And she's with us on the line now from her home office in Chicago. Mary Mitchell, thanks so much for joining us once again.

MARY MITCHELL: Thank you for the invitation.

MARTIN: Now, Mary, as we mentioned, this case has a lot of history. It's been in the courts for more than a decade now, but can you tell us how it started? Did the black firefighters or their representatives believe from the beginning that the test was discriminatory?

MITCHELL: Definitely. They believed that there was something wrong with the test and that not enough of potential African-American firefighters made it into the qualified pool. So just like Chicago's no different from a lot of other cities, there's always been some concern that the tests were unfair and it did not measure the ability of a firefighter to do the job.

MARTIN: Now, the rulings stems from a test, as we said, given in 1995. It was intended to measure an aptitude for firefighting and after the test, anybody who scored, you know, 64 or below was deemed not qualified. But then officials apparently told those who scored above that number that while they passed, they would randomly hire the top 1,800 who scored 89 or better. And it turns out that only 11 percent of the African-Americans scored 89 or better. And that the representatives for the black firefighters argued that there was no evidence that that score had anything to do with the aptitude for firefighting. So what did the city say to that? What was their response to that?

MITCHELL: Well, their response was that, first of all, they were very disappointed in that test. But second of all, there weren't that many jobs. And so they arbitrarily chose a number. This is why this lawsuit really went as far as it did, because this lawsuit did not measure whether or not the test was fair. It was how the city used the test. Once you said that you were - if you qualified, if you had a qualifying score, you should be in that pool. And then changed the rules after the test was given and say, well, we have a pool of well qualified and we're going to choose the higher score.

That created a situation that was an unlevel playing field for those African-American candidates who passed the test. And I think that's something we have to remember. We're not talking about candidates who did not pass the test. They passed the test, but they were passed over in favor of people had a higher score. And unfortunately that meant that white candidates were seven times more likely to have been hired than African-Americans.

MARTIN: This issue has been a very emotional issue in a lot of cities and I'll just, in the spirit of full disclosure, I'll mention to people who may not remember this, my father was a firefighter in New York City. My brother was a firefighter in New York City. And this whole question of who gets to be in these coveted jobs has been a very difficult and emotional one in a lot of cities and many people will remember the Supreme Court case involving the Hartford Fire Department years ago, where the white firefighters who did not get jobs contended that they had been discriminated against.


MARTIN: And the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in that case. So I'd like to ask, you know, how is this decision being received in Chicago now?

MITCHELL: Well, 15 years is a long time to wait for justice. And the firefighters who are still in Chicago, who took other jobs, went on with their lives, are really, you know, potential firefighters, are really excited about the opportunity to maybe their name be randomly selected out of the 111 because the city has to hire 111. But the 6,000 people who were passed over, they are very excited that in their eyes justice has been served.

Unfortunately for the city of Chicago, they're going to have to come up with a lot of money, millions of dollars, $30 million, when they have a budget shortfall. But I think the lesson in this, an important lesson is that this case went forward and people did not give up.

MARTIN: Does anybody still argue that the test was in fact fair and that people who did not get these jobs are just crying sour grapes?

MITCHELL: Well, you know, I don't think this is ever going to be resolved until there is a case that really looks at the test itself. Not how it was administered, not how a city used the test, but the test itself. What is it within the test that is unfair? Because the African-American candidates would argue that if you can read on a 10th grade level and you get through a year of academy, at the fire academy, and you're able to carry the weight that you need to carry and do the job, that that's what's the most important thing. And not the comprehension within questions that are on the test. And that question, unfortunately, has not been addressed.

MARTIN: And, finally, you mentioned that the whole question of the $30 million, as we mentioned - you mentioned, that the city is facing some serious budget issues now. Where is that money going to come from?

MITCHELL: Well, so far it looks like it's going to be coming from furlough days. There's a lot of interest here in Chicago in cutting what they consider unnecessary services. So we'll see. A mayor like Ramn Emanuel is going to be sworn in today. And that is going to be one of the first things that's going to be on his desk.

MARTIN: Mary Mitchell is a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. She was kind enough to join us from her home office in Chicago. Mary Mitchell, thank you so much for joining us.

MITCHELL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.