Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a surprise visit to the Chicago Fire Academy on Friday to deliver a pep talk to 111 middle-aged black firefighter-trainees who waited 17 years to realize their dream.
“The city in the past made a mistake. You are about correcting that mistake,” the mayor’s office quoted Emanuel as telling the rookies.
“You have a special responsibility. You are the select few that got in. And together, we’ll make sure there is a different future than the past.”
The rookies–a few of them in their 50s–were the chosen few from among more than 6,100 African-Americans bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 entrance exam.
In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the city’s decision had the effect of perpetuating the predominantly-white status quo because 78 percent of those “well-qualified” candidates were white. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the black candidates did not wait too long before filing their lawsuit.
The legal odyssey ended last summer, when the city agreed to hire 111 bypassed black firefighters and pay at least $40 million in damages to 6,000 others who will never get that chance. Chicago taxpayers will also be on the hook for up to $20 million in back pension benefits for those hired.
The Fire Department’s age limit for new hires is 38. That does not apply to the 111 black firefighters because the discrimination occurred before the cutoff was established.
The new class entered the fire academy on March 16 amid concern about how many would survive the grueling six-month training and how well those that do would be accepted at firehouses.
“We are not naÃ¯ve enough to think that, just because we’ve prevailed and Mayor Emanuel has been cooperating in administering the remedy that the problem of racism in the Chicago Fire Department disappears,” Matt Piers, an attorney for the black firefighters, said on that day.
“I am always worried, given the history of the Fire Department and the history of this case…There’s been a terrific amount of bias and bigotry…We intend to be on close watch.”
Widespread acceptance of the new black firefighters may be easier said than done.
Benjamin Diaz said he’s one of 17,000 firefighter hopefuls who’s been waiting to be hired since passing a 2006 entrance exam only to be leapfrogged by the court-mandated class of 111 blacks.
“Since this training class was pushed to the front of the line over us, it just delays our chances of having the same opportunity they did,” Diaz wrote in an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Am I speaking out of anger? Not at all. It’s more out of frustration…Most of the (2006) candidates are reaching the age limit because of the delay. Others have taken physical exams and are just left up in the air without any notice of when things will move along.”
Mayoral spokesman Tom Alexander, who accompanied Emanuel to the fire academy, said the mayor expects that the new recruits are “gonna be welcomed with open arms–both by fellow firefighters and by Chicagoans.”
Throughout the campaign and as mayor, Emanuel has made periodic stops at Chicago firehouses.
But Friday’s visit to the fire academy was different, Alexander said.
“It was a little bit beyond a pep talk. These folks have been through a pretty long and intense experience. They’re also just getting started with their careers. He wanted to let these folks know that he’s 100 percent in their corner and personally glad the mistakes of the past have been rectified,” Alexander said.