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Around the country, the nation’s firehouses have continually played out bothersome race polemics. At times, the controversy has had to with the argument that fire departments were providing culturally biased firefighter exams, leaving applicants of color out in the cold. When authorities have moved to adjust standards in order to include the put-upon group, white firefighters have claimed reverse discrimination and filed law suits. Here in D.C., a department that says it has about an even split of white and black firefighters has seen its share of litigation, too.

White and black firefighters have sued for both discrimination and reverse discrimination in the District. In one riveting lawsuit filed in February 2009, among many other allegations, black fire investigators Gerald Pennington and Gregory Bowyer contended that under former Fire Chief Dennis Rubin, who is white, the fire department attempted to change the demographics of the Fire Investigations Unit by pushing unqualified white firefighters into the elite pack.

Rubin served as chief from 2007 to 2010; fire investigators check out fires when the cause is suspicious. They carry guns and have arrest powers. Though the lawsuit has gotten lots of press because of accusations made about a botched fire investigation, not much attention has been paid to the suggestion that black fire investigators were being overrun.  According to numbers provided by the D.C. Fire Department this week, more than a year later, there is a slight white majority in the unit.

According to the suit, in the spring of 2007, Rubin “instituted a new race-based policy under which he assigned more white personnel to the FIU with the goal [of] increasing the percentage of white investigators.” The suit says that prior to 2007, the FIU “had for many years been majority-African-American.” Then Rubin’s administration began cheating the system, the lawsuit claims, invoking their own brand of unofficial affirmative action. “Defendants relaxed the standards for promotion to fire investigator in order to ensure the addition of white candidates it assigned to the unit,” court papers say. They also assert some of the whites were inserted into leadership positions.

These days, applicants are required to have been on the job three years. The civil complaint says prior to 2007, the requirement was five. The department also loosened the requirements regarding body fat, criminal background checks and psychological evaluations, says the suit.

One requirement has stayed firmly in place, though: Potential investigators need to pass a fire investigator exam, getting at least 70 percent of the answers right. Bowyer and Pennington allege that a white superior helped white applicants cheat, though filings don’t provide any proof to back that up.

Whether there was cheating, the 70 percent majority court papers say blacks had within the unit at the beginning of 2007 is certainly gone. Of 22 current investigators, five are black males; five are black females; 11 are white males and one is a white female. That means there’s now a 54 percent white majority within the unit. That’s more balanced than court papers complain it was in 2009, when blacks were 40 percent of the team. A lawyer for the city declined comment. A lawyer for the two fire investigators didn’t return calls. The suit has a status hearing on April 29.

Of course, 22 is really too small a number to get much clarity from, as the subtraction or addition of even one or two people changes the percentage significantly. But D.C. Fire spokesperson Pete Piringer does admit things have changed within FIU. He says the changes “are reflective of the community,” though. He contends fire department demographics are slowly changing because, as recent Census data shows, District demographics are.

“Their allegations, I think, are unproven,” says Piringer of the suit’s accusation of racism. Asked why race repeatedly crops up as a subject among District firefighters, Piringer blames the wider culture: “I think it’s a reflection on society in general.”

That may be true. But divisiveness among firefighters would seem to play a special role in the discourse on racial politics. Firefighters, more so than politicians or cops, are seen as the ultimate good guys, as paragons of civil service. (Who else runs into burning buildings as part of their job?) That black firefighters can perceive the arrival or promotion of white colleagues as the arrival or promotion of unqualified whites, and vice-versa, points to a problem. As a society, we’ve always relied on the idea that an unbiased meritocracy could remedy racism (no one should be “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”), when racism may be more of a perception problem than a mechanical one. The most dangerous part of it being a perception problem is that evolving, amending, or elevating standards won’t help, because each side will continue to engage in tribalism and continue to believe they’ve been wronged.

Photo by ElvertBarnes via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0