Racist Fears Linger after Radio Slurs
Hearings set on firefighter culture
Gary Washburn and Dan Mihalopoulos, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 3
Nearly five years after outside consultants concluded that an “enormous” racial divide plagued the Chicago Fire Department, city officials are divided over whether recent racial incidents are isolated or clear illustrations that the old problem hasn’t been fixed.
But after the third time in less than a month that slurs were broadcast over departmental radio frequencies, concern was evident Tuesday in both camps.
“The fact of the matter is, you do have some racists out there in the Fire Department,” said Ald. Isaac Carothers (29th), chairman of the City Council’s Police and Fire Committee. “There’s no doubt the department has had many, many racial problems in its history, and they’re not going away.”
Carothers’ committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday on the offensive radio transmissions, and the council’s Human Relations Committee also will convene a hearing, said Ald. Billy Ocasio (26th), its chairman.
“The culture has changed,” asserted Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th). “The department is becoming younger and younger, and those people coming in today are not the same people working … who were part of firefighter families that went back generations.”
Nevertheless, the department “has to stand up, and not just the brass but the rank and file, and say: ‘We are not going to tolerate this anymore. We are not going to allow ourselves and our good work to be embarrassed by a couple of knuckleheads.’“
O’Connor is among council members calling for the firing of anyone in the department who utters racial slurs.
The latest remarks were broadcast Monday morning over “fire main,” a band used by the department for an area stretching from the Near South Side to the Far North Side, officials said.
The transmission was about seven seconds long, and the caller ticked off pejorative terms for more than half a dozen racial and ethnic groups.
Fire Commissioner James Joyce said that whoever broadcast the list appeared to be “someone thumbing his nose at the fire administration” over a 90-day suspension imposed last week on a firefighter who allegedly made racial slurs on Feb. 2 over an open microphone in a department vehicle.
Radio linked to 1 employee
An identification number that “popped up” with Monday’s transmission indicated that the radio used is one of 875 hand-held models in the department’s inventory and was assigned to a specific fire company and a particular employee, Joyce said. Investigators on Tuesday were questioning firefighters to determine who made the broadcast, he said.
City officials contend the Fire Department’s record on race has improved in recent years despite a checkered history.
The department was not integrated until 1968, and its racial composition is virtually unchanged since 1998.
Of the city’s 4,896 firefighters and paramedics at the end of 2003, 68.8 percent were white, 19.4 percent were black, 10.4 percent were Hispanic, .9 percent were Asian-American and less than one-half of one percent were American Indian.
Whites made up 88 of 107 battalion chiefs, 142 of 182 captains and 447 of 594 lieutenants.
According to the 2000 census, the population of Chicago is 36.4 percent black, 31.3 percent white and 26 percent Hispanic.
In 1998 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged that the city’s affirmative action efforts had “utterly failed,” and that the city discriminated in the hiring and promotion of firefighters.
Among findings of a 1999 consultant’s study commissioned by the city was one conclusion that the “racial divide in the department is enormous” and “permeates every aspect of department life …
“Whether they were white, black or Hispanic, the vast majority” of firefighters interviewed “offered some negative experience involving race relations.”
Anger over affirmative action
Some white firefighters contend that affirmative action has advanced minorities who have scored lower on tests and are less qualified for command positions than white colleagues.
“The racial attitude of white guys in the houses is that white guys are getting screwed,” said a white member of the department who spoke in return for anonymity. “Their attitude is they are being [passed over] for promotion” because of affirmative action, and “they see that a lot of the big bosses are black.”
In late 1997, a videotape of a firehouse retirement party held seven years earlier surfaced. Firefighters were caught on tape drinking, exposing themselves and making racial slurs.
In 1998, six firefighters were suspended for harassing an American Indian colleague.
Capt. Ezra McCann, an African-American firefighter who brought the party videotape to the attention of department officials, charged Tuesday that the city performs “damage control” after racial incidents “and then it’s back to business as usual.
“Race relations are low, and that has been the case for years,” he said.
But James McNally, president of Local 2 of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union, cautioned against reading too much into the recent radio slurs.
“This certainly is not indicative of a larger problem that some people are making it out to be,” he said. “If this is supposed to be an indicator of some inherent type of racism, it certainly isn’t supported by actions of our members on a daily basis. … Every single day the firefighters and paramedics who go to work are dedicated to what they do, and are willing to put their lives at risk in minority communities and in every other community.”
McNally has won praise as head of the union, but critics say he carries baggage of his own. He attended the 1990 retirement party and once appeared in black face to protest affirmative action promotions.