Multiracial memorial would hide FDNY's bias

January 22, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - I guess all of that national unity and good feeling that followed the tragedies of Sept. 11 was just too good to last.

A planned memorial to honor the 343 firefighters who died at the World Trade Center has sparked a firestorm of its own. Let's just say that some people don't like the way it re-colors history.

The proposed 19-foot bronze statue is based on the now-famous news photo of three firemen raising an American flag over the rubble at Ground Zero. Except, instead of the three firemen in the photo, who are all white, the statue depicts one white, one black and one Hispanic.

A department spokesman said the multiethnic representation is intended to honor "everyone who made the supreme sacrifice."

Twelve of the firefighters who died were black, and another dozen were believed to be Hispanic.

The change, while heartwarming to some, can also be a bit startling for those who are familiar with the original photo by Tom Franklin of The Record of Bergen County, N.J.

Still, there's no rule that says a statue has to be an exact replica, even when it is based on a well-known photo. In fact, many artists will tell you that their job is to represent, not to duplicate. I guess that's why so much of the art I see these days looks like absolutely nothing that I have been able to find in nature.

Nevertheless, the fire department has been bombarded with complaints of historical accuracy being sacrificed at the altar of "political correctness."

Some firefighters have started a petition drive to get something closer to the all-white-guy original.

Bill Kelly, a lawyer for the real firemen, wrote to the fire department and to the management company that commissioned the statue asking them to stop production, according to the Associated Press. The trio was "disappointed," he said, that the statue has "become something that is political as opposed to historical."

Maybe so, but when it comes to issues like racial diversity, the historical is political.

In fact, maybe the complainers have a point. If it means that much to them, let's restore the original white faces.

Why should black and Latino images be used to mask patterns of discrimination that fire departments have practiced for decades?

Yes, you might think from all of this fuss that white, non-Hispanic men were somehow under siege at the New York Fire Department. In fact, something quite the opposite has happened.

Black firefighters peaked at about 600 out of a total force of more than 13,000 in the early 1970s under an aggressive desegregation plan that expired 20 years ago, according to department figures. Three decades later, black firefighters actually declined to 324 out of 11,356 last year. About 340 others were Hispanic.

So as much as some firefighters might have felt "insulted" by the new faces put on the firemen in the statue, a lot of blacks and Latinos have been insulted to find out that New York's 94 percent white male department was actually less diverse than it was in the 1970s.

Further, a survey last year by former mayoral candidate Mark Green's office when he was public advocate found that the Big Apple had the least-diverse department of the eight largest U.S. cities. The rest ranged between 22 percent and 50 percent black or Latino.

Are New York's applicants dumber than they were three decades ago while the rest of the country has gotten smarter?

Somehow I don't think so.

New York is hardly alone in such patterns. Age-old patterns of nepotism, cronyism and racial preferences tilted against non-whites have brought lawsuits against fire departments across the country over that past few decades. Even the most conservative Supreme Courts of our time have upheld the need to remedy such longstanding patterns of bias.

So, let history speak for itself. To heck with political correctness. New York firefighters want a memorial like the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial? Fine.

The white faces on that re-creation of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima have always reminded some of us of how far we Americans have come from the segregated military of those days. An all-white fire department memorial can remind us of how far we still have to go.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.