A look at fire test's fairness should douse this dispute

April 21, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

IF MY HOUSE is burning and firefighters come to put it out, I'm not going to quibble about what color they are.

But, hey, I'm funny that way.

Yesterday, the entire city learned that, for the first time in 50 years, the current recruit class of the Baltimore Fire Department is all-white. The similarity probably ends with the whiteness, but not to hear some people tell it.

An article by The Sun's Reginald Fields quoted several retired black firefighters, who accused Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. of "stamping on racial progress and violating the tenets of the Civil Rights Act."

Let's see here. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that hiring and public accommodations be done without regard to race. In 1954, things were done very much based on race. Was that the case in 2002 when, according to James Gardner, the deputy public information officer for the Fire Department, the entrance exams were last taken?

According to Fields' article, nearly half of the 836 people who took that test failed. We can safely conclude that many of them were white, but don't expect to see anybody shedding tears over their plight.

A class, which had 10 minorities, was formed from that group last year. This year's class had none. What were the criteria?

"That you be 18 years old, have a high school diploma or GED certificate, and a valid Maryland driver's license," said Gardner. Oh, and that you pass the test.

Goodwin, who couldn't be reached for Fields' story, was on hand yesterday. And he was in high dudgeon.

"To say that I'm furious," Goodwin said, "along with the mayor himself, would be an understatement. The mayor was not happy with me, and rightly so. I'll take full responsibility."

What, exactly, had Goodwin done wrong? Plenty, to hear him tell it. The department knew, in November 2002, that the pool of available minority applicants who passed the entrance exam was low.

"We knew we were in some big trouble," Goodwin told news media members gathered at Fire Department headquarters. "We didn't get fully solved. We will make sure it never happens again."

The "it" in question is a class with only whites. The department will now give a new civil service test, although Goodwin acknowledged that the one scrapped was a test "that was supposed to be one least adversely impacting minorities."

You want to commit yourself to an asylum when you hear talk like this. Tests, civil service and otherwise, are supposed to measure individual achievement or aptitude. The test that will "least adversely impact" a racial or ethnic group has not, and will never, be created.

And thank heavens.

Goodwin said that, under the old system, the department would give a test in one central location and then get back to potential cadets within a two-year period. Our Fire Department will now follow the Police Department model: give the tests in the districts and return the results to potential candidates sooner. This, it is hoped, will increase the pool of qualified minority candidates and fix a process Goodwin described as "broken."

But by Goodwin's own admission, that same process worked for the eight black and six white command staffers standing behind him. When I suggested that the process that resulted in an all-white class was completely color-blind and in accordance with the law of the land, Goodwin couldn't disagree.

"Was [the process] fair?" Goodwin asked. "It was absolutely fair. Did we follow all the civil service laws? Absolutely. But the process has to be something we need to do better at. Up front, the process is flawed."

Then I asked Goodwin if he'd quibble about the color of the firefighters who came to put out a fire at his house.

"I appreciate what you're saying," Goodwin answered. "But as government employees and civil servants, we have to do a better job of being inclusive in those areas."

Battalion Chief Charles E. Brown, one of the African-Americans who make up 50 percent of Goodwin's command staff, echoed the chief's sentiments after the news conference was over.

"We would like to reflect the community," Brown said.

Yes, and I'd like Michael Jordan's basketball ability and Denzel Washington's looks. Life isn't fair, but the process that got Baltimore an all-white cadet class was. The most probing question yesterday was about fairness. It came not from reporters, but from a member of the department.

"How," asked Deputy Chief Antonio R. Thomas, an African-American, "do you get more fair than fair? The process was fair."

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