Commentary: A Fire Department in Need of a Makeover

Racist and anti-Semitic tweets from a New York City firefighter shame far more than his father, who is the city’s fire commissioner.

Posted: 03/21/2013 11:19 AM EDT
Commentary: A Fire Department in Need of a Makeover

One of the more curious byproducts of living in the age of Obama is the renewed presence of racial insensitivity and the blatant lengths to which people are apparently willing to go to put it on public display.

Just consider the case of Congressman Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who shouted “you lie” at President Obama during a state of the union speech. There was Newt Gingrich, the presidential candidate who consistently referred to the nation’s first African-American commander in chief as the “food stamp president.”

It is a culture that trickles down from how the president is treated to less lofty terrain.
We now have the sad spectacle of Joseph Cassano, the 23-year-old son of New York City’s fire commissioner, who recently resigned from the department after revelations that he had used social media as a platform to express his hatred for Jews, African-Americans and those who are poor.

In one, tweet, he said: “Getting sick of picking up all these Obama lovers and taking them to the hospital because their Medicare pays for an ambulance and not a cab.” In another, he opined: “I like jews about as much as hitler #toofar? NOPE.” On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, he stated another jarring message. “MLK could go kick rocks for all I care, but thanks for the time and a half today.”

The discovery and public airing of those social media messages led to the anticipated reaction from father and son.

“I am extremely disappointed in the comments posted online by my son Joseph, which do not reflect the values — including a respect for all people — that are held by me, my family and the F.D.N.Y.,” the commissioner, Salvatore J. Cassano, said in a statement.

The son released a statement of his own. “My intention was never to hurt anyone, or any group, and these tasteless comments do not reflect the person my parents raised me to be,” he insisted.

And with that, they suggested, it was time to put the matter to rest. Let bygones be bygones, the commissioner and his Twitter-happy son suggested.

Not so fast, argue some.

“It betrays the mindset and the attribute of the department and what the department has accepted in terms of his racial attitudes,” said John Coombs, president of the Vulcan Society, the fraternal order of Black firefighters, speaking in an interview with BET.com.

“There is an attitude that is common within the department that is displayed by those tweets,” Coombs said. “There are people who come in to neighborhoods [and] treat the people they are supposed to be serving with disrespect.”

If nothing else, this would be a fine time for Cassano and his executive staff to study deeply the landscape of his department when it comes to race. In a city where a quarter of the residents are Black, African-American firefighters account for a paltry 3 percent of the force. Let’s face it, there is no reason for the firefighting personnel in New York City to look very much like the fire department of Fargo, North Dakota.

Three years ago, a federal district court in Brooklyn ruled that a court-appointed monitor be called in to look deeply into the department’s recruiting and hiring practices with an eye toward making sure more Black and Latino applicants are hired. It is a department that is steeped in nepotism where firefighting positions remain within families, like old silver. Note that the commissioner’s 23-year-old son managed to get a job in the Fire Department while scores of Black and Latino applicants did not. As the tweets reveal, it surely is not because young Cassano is brighter.

It is a department submerged in a culture of insensitivity and callousness toward some components of the city. These are issues that need to be vigorously addressed. And this would be a good time for the commissioner to do more than simply lament his son’s bad judgment.


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(Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Burton)

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