Across the country, firefighter entrance exams have been under heavy scrutiny because of their disparate impact on African-American candidates.
A federal judge recently ruled New York City had discriminated against black and Hispanic candidates for entry-level firefighter jobs from 1999-2007.
The discrimination stems from past entrance exams, which contained eighty-five multiple choice questions on firefighting techniques.
According to federal judge Nicholas G. Garaufis, the city “did not take sufficient measures to ensure that better performers on its examinations would actually be better firefighters.”
During the period in question, the city appointed more than 5,300 entry-level firefighters based on test results. Black firefighters accounted for roughly 3 percent of those jobs.
Shayana Kadidal is a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal organization.
The center represented the Vulcan Society, a fraternal group of black firefighters, which brought the suit against the city.
Kadidal said past exams weeded out minorities, especially blacks.
“Firefighting has always been about skills you learn on the job under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Kadidal said. “The city hasn’t shown the relationship between scoring well on an exam and being a good firefighter. And that’s what’s clear.”
Officials said the city began administering a new test in January 2007.
Connie Pankratz is the deputy communications director for the New York City Law Department.
“The new exam tests for more skills and abilities needed for the job of firefighter, “Pankratz wrote in an e-mail to theGrio.com. “The new test was longer (100 instead of 85 questions) but used more photos and drawings than prior tests in order to reduce the amount of reading.”
It has not been determined what remedies the city will be required to carry out. One such remedy could include payment of lost wages to candidates impacted by the court’s ruling.
Earlier this year, a Virginia fire department was forced to modify its written exam after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found white applicants passed at more than double the rate of black applicants.
Seven black firefighters are suing the city of Houston, contending the exam it administers for officer promotions unfairly impacts black candidates.
R. L’Heureux Lewis, assistant professor at City College of New York maintains that the tests’ credibility is not solely an issue because blacks are not performing well and if the roles were reversed and whites were underperforming, claims of bias would begin immediately.
“As long as we continue to grow up in an unequal America, we can expect to see unequal test scores,” said Lewis, who is the son of a police officer. “Emphasizing tests doesn’t emphasize leadership skills or how people respond in dynamic situations.”