Test Prep for Minority FDNY Applicants Ignites Tension

Last week brought good news for the organization of black firefighters known as the Vulcan Society, when a judge ordered the city to compensate black and Latino FDNY applicants to a potential tune of almost $129 million for the salary and benefits they would have received had the Fire Department hired them. In his ruling (available via New York Law Journal), U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis found the firefighter entrance exam discriminatory towards minorities.

The Vulcan Society holds test prep classes for the FDNY firefighter entrance exam. (Photo by Bill More via Amsterdam News)

But despite the victory, the Vulcan Society — which, as reported earlier, helps minority candidates apply to the FDNY —  faced a ruckus over the highly regarded test prep classes they hold, which are intended for minority applicants.

Amsterdam News reported on what triggered the discord between FDNY Captain Paul Washington — who holds some of the prep classes and was a former Vulcan Society president — and FDNY Deputy Chief Paul Mannix:

Last Wednesday, Feb. 29, white prospective firefighters arrived at a tutoring class at M.S. 72 in Queens being held by the Vulcan Society.

As the Vulcans’ reserved space in the school began to fill up, white applicants and Black Vulcan Society members got into arguments as the white applicants tried to enter the building. White applicants yelled, “What would Martin Luther King do?” and “No justice, no peace.”

As they stated they would during the FDNY’s summer recruitment drive, the Vulcan Society sent invitations to test takers who marked on their applications that they were Black or Hispanic, urging them to attend the classes. This list has been used to register applicants when they arrive at the tutoring sessions. But many have confirmed that white applicants who were not on the original list were referred to the classes by FDNY Deputy Chief Paul Mannix.

“They [the white applicants] had themselves a little riot,” said Washington. “They were singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ They were mocking the Civil Rights Movement.”

The Queens Chronicle reported that Washington added, “They can’t possibly believe that not being let into a prep class is the same thing as being lynched, forced to sit at the back of the bus, or not being allowed to vote. It was pure mockery.”

Washington says that the Vulcans don’t ban white applicants from the classes.

The Vulcans give priority to black candidates, and any white candidates who show up are allowed in, provided there are the resources to accommodate them, Washington said. He added that the Vulcans have tutored more than 200 white candidates in the last week.

However, the invitations sent to the minority test takers, in the form of an email, sparked a war of words between Washington and Mannix.

Washington said the email, intended for black candidates only, was intercepted by FDNY Deputy Chief Paul Mannix, the founder of Merit Matters, a group that opposes race-based hiring, and sent to as many white candidates as possible in an attempt to “sabotage” their classes and try to depict them as racist — something Mannix denies.

“They should have made it clear right away,” Mannix said. “To think in this day and age that you are going to send an email out and it’s not going to be forwarded is ridiculous.

One of those who couldn’t get into the class, John Guarisco, who is white and of Italian descent, said, “The only people who were getting in were the African Americans. I’ve never experienced racism like that before. We were made to feel like we weren’t worthy.”

Amsterdam News also quotes John Davis, a white applicant who attended a class in Harlem organized by the Vulcan Society last Tuesday, after hearing about the class through word of mouth.

“I’m not trying to cause any trouble,” he said. “It’s the only one I heard of and also the best.”

The high quality of the Vulcan prep classes is at the root of the problem, according to Queens Chronicle:

Mannix said he disseminated the Vulcan email announcement because he believes the group’s test prep classes are even better than the ones offered by the city.

“They present ways of answering unique and subjective questions that are on the test — ones with answers like ‘agree, strongly agree, neutral, disagree and strongly disagree,’” Mannix said. “They are victims of their own success.”

The deputy chief didn’t always have such sharp words against the Vulcans. After the first prep class in Brooklyn where white and black applicants were able to attend, Mannix emailed his group members.

“We applaud them for this inclusion and embrace of diversity,” he wrote. “In the first paragraph [of the Vulcan’s invitation] it does say ‘Black firefighters like yourself,’ but we can’t believe this is meant to exclude anyone based on race.”

Amsterdam News quotes one of the Vulcan prep teachers:

“This isn’t funded like the FDNY classes; they wouldn’t give us nothing. But [the white applicants] are here because they heard it’s the best class…by far,” said coach Stevan Lynn, who will be preparing FDNY applicants for the physical section of the test starting this week.

“They threw those classes together at the last minute because of everything that has happened. But it’s good for [the white applicants] to be here now—to be here and be part of the team from the start,” he said.

Despite the Vulcan Society’s efforts, the statistics still show a dramatic disparity. According to DNAinfo, “There are currently about 350 black firefighters among the 11,500 in the department — a number far short of the African-American presence in other uniformed services.”

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