“A Social Experiment”
President Harry Truman’s grandparents owned slaves and historians have said that he was raised and conditioned to be a racist. Yet, just 100 days before the 1948 elections and despite 82% of Americans disagreeing with his position, he issued Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 ordering the racial integration of the US military.
But, it wasn’t easy. The top ranks of the armed forces were filled with blatantly racist officers. Scott Foster reports that Omar Bradley, the “GI’s general” remarked that the Army was “no place for social experiments.” Ken Hechler, who worked for Truman said that the president brought Bradley in and talked to him in “good old Missouri English” and the general saw the light of day.
Then as now, the military and the fire service share the exact same essential requirement: a high degree of readiness and effectiveness for all forces, especially those on the front line. Beginning in 1948 and continuing to this very day, the US military maintains combat readiness and effectiveness while creating a professional workforce that represents our country. (25% of the US military are racial minorities and 18% of those are Black.)
Of course, FDNY is the opposite: it remains nearly 97% white and male in a city that is 56% non-white and 52% female. It is an epic triumph of racism, sexism and failed leadership, both political and departmental.
The blame is shared by the Mayor and his deputies, the Commissioner and his officers, and union leaders. They all work very diligently to contrive absurd arguments and to prop each other up to protect their cracker barrel on the Hudson.
The US military proved definitively that high standards can be maintained while creating a diverse workforce by actually recruiting qualified candidates. Recruitment means attracting the candidates you seek and then rewarding them for joining your team with whatever combination of incentives that are affordable and effective.
Not so in the FDNY. “Recruiting” in the FDNY means convincing minorities to show up and take a written exam that they will be ill-prepared to do well on, especially in comparison to the fourth and fifth generation white male “FDNY descendants” they are sitting next to. FDNY is an elite white male palace guard with the moat full and the drawbridge up. They can afford to say, “Let them eat cake”, at least for now.
About his decision and his resolve, it is said that Truman penned in his diary, “How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?” Truman was surely a “firefighter’s president.” He lacked a college education yet was both smart and well read. He was plain spoken, hard working and honest. He was also brave and not afraid to stake his reputation and future on what he thought was right. And it turns out he was right.
General Matthew Ridgway, commander of the 82nd Airborne during WWII and leader of the 8th Army during the Korean War voluntarily requested that his units be integrated in Korea. Of Ridgway, President Ronald Reagan said, “Heroes come when they’re needed, great men step forward when courage is in short supply.”
FDNY needs a few great men.