[cifnmedia] Racial Problems Plague Chicago Fire Department

  • From: Sean & Kimberly Aaron <cifn@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: CIFN LIST <cifnmedia@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 6 Apr 2004 09:49:25 -0700 (PDT)

Updated: 04-06-2004 09:16:05 AM

Racial Problems Plague Chicago Fire Department

Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) -- After 25 years as a firefighter, Curtis Humphries knows his job 
on certain calls is mostly limited to helping paramedics. 

A recent call was different. ``Black people did not want to talk to the 
whites,'' said Humphries, who is black. ``I told them, I said, 'I can help you, 
but to be honest, you just threw out the guy that knew more.'' 

As Humphries' experience illustrates, these are tough times at the Chicago Fire 
Department. A white firefighter's racial slur over a department radio triggered 
a spate of anonymous slurs and once again racial problems that have plagued the 
department for decades were exposed. 

Mayor Richard Daley blasted the ``cowards'' making the anonymous calls and a 
black battalion chief received a death threat. A newspaper ran an editorial 
cartoon that showed firefighters spraying water on blacks - a scene reminiscent 
of the early days of the civil rights movement. 

Two months after the first slur, the fire commissioner announced his 
retirement, replaced by Daley with the first black commissioner in Chicago 

While Commissioner James Joyce insists the slurs didn't prompt him to quit, few 
believe they didn't at least hasten his planned retirement. Whatever happened, 
his successor made it clear he won't stand for the racism critics say has been 
allowed to fester in the department. 

``Let me serve notice to those who wrongfully believe that the department is a 
haven for small mindedness, offensive behavior and stagnation,'' Cortez Trotter 
said last week. ``We are entering a new era for the Chicago Fire Department. 
Please recognize that for what it is or be prepared to face the consequences of 
your actions.'' 

Trotter's challenge is to take over a department that, when it comes to race, 
``is always simmering,'' said Nicholas Russell, president of the African 
American Fire Fighters League of Chicago and the battalion chief who received 
the recent death threat. 

The simmering dates at least to 1965 when a fire truck operated by an all-white 
crew in a predominantly black neighborhood struck a stop sign that hit and 
killed a black woman, triggering a riot. 

Then, in an effort to ease tensions, the department's handful of black 
firefighters, who had been segregated from their white counterparts, were 
assigned to every station in black neighborhoods. 

Ever since, race has been at the center of one fight after another. In the 
1970s, when blacks and Hispanics made up less than 5 percent of the 
department's uniformed employees, the U.S. Justice Department sued the city. 

Court orders settled the case, and Chicago was required to hire and promote 
more minorities. The city's response? ``They stopped hiring for years,'' said 
Judson Miner, an attorney who has represented black firefighters and was the 
city's corporation counsel in the 1980s. 

Minority numbers really jumped during a 1980 strike when hundreds crossed a 
picket line. When the strike was settled, a new contract called for affirmative 
action until minorities held 45 percent of the department's jobs. 

Today, 948 blacks, 510 Hispanics, 45 Asians and 21 American Indians hold 
uniformed jobs, accounting for about 31 percent of the department's 4,896 
uniformed employees. 

No one, it seems, is satisfied. 

Whites, who have filed a flurry of lawsuits - unsuccessfully so far - claim 
they've been illegally passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified 

``Everybody knows somebody who was passed over,'' said Lt. Dan Mullaney, a 
third-generation firefighter. ``There is resentment, no question about it.'' 

Minorities, too, have fought what they say is discrimination - both to keep 
them out of the department and then once they get in. They say it's no accident 
that blacks account for only 16 of 107 battalion chiefs, 26 of 182 captains and 
94 of 594 lieutenants. 

Today, the reaction to the latest slurs suggest Trotter inherits a deeply 
divided department. 

James McNally, the firefighters' union president, said the slurs are nothing 
more than isolated incidents. 

But Russell said he and others see the slurs as a continuation of an ugly 
history that has included incidents such as McNally's appearance in blackface 
to protest affirmative action years ago and a widely-shown videotape of a fire 
house retirement party that showed firefighters making racist comments. 

Wherever the truth lies, firefighters feel the heat when they go out and do 
their jobs. 

``We're all being punished for the actions of a few idiots,'' said Lt. Mauricio 
Rodriguez, a 17-year department veteran. 

And Ed Smith, a black City Council member wonders whether the slurs will lead 
to more problems. 

``I'm just concerned that we don't rekindle some of the things that have 
happened in the past,'' he said. ``We need to put that fire out.'' 



Sean A. Aaron (CIFN*1)
Central Illinois Fire Network

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