One of the positives, for lack of a better word, of the renewed focus on systemic racism in America is seeing Black people across the country speaking out about the years of racist treatment they’ve tolerated in their respective fields. A group of Black firefighters in Kansas City, Mo., have spoken out about the years of racial discrimination they’ve endured in the city’s fire department.
A report by the Kansas City Star found that a pattern of systemic racism has plagued the Kansas City Fire Department in Kansas City, Mo., for decades. The report was triggered following an incident last year where Benjamin Barton, a white fire cadet, said his favorite knot was a noose, threw a rope around the neck of a Black classmate, and pulled it tight.
“I went back and sat down because I didn’t want to lose my job or anything like that since at that time, I was a probationary firefighter,” the affected firefighter told the Kansas City Star. The firefighter remained anonymous for fear of retaliation.
As word spread about the incident, many firefighters in the department called for Barton to be fired. Instead, after multiple roadblocks and union politicking, Barton was ultimately employed for several weeks after the incident and allowed to resign on his own.
“For me to take the higher road for it and still not get the justice that I felt was satisfactory to me was actually kind of heartbreaking,” the impacted firefighter told the Star.
The firefighter said that Barton initially tried to tell him that he didn’t know what he did was racist but the firefighter wasn’t trying to hear that. “Man, it’s 2019. Who in their right mind can live in America and not know what a noose represents to a Black person?” the firefighter said.
“I know people live under rocks, but that’s got to be like the deepest rock in the world.”
According to the 30 current and former Black firefighters interviewed by the Star, the lack of consequences for what was a blatantly racist act is unsurprising. “If (you’re) not the right color, not the right sex, you are going to have a problem,” Therese Brown, a retired Black firefighter, told the Star.
Records obtained by the Star show that half of the city’s fire crews don’t have a single black firefighter among them. Black firefighters are also overlooked for promotions in high-ranking positions; of the 48 highest-ranking firefighters, only three are Black.
In the 30 years since Kansas City last had a Black fire chief, not a single Black firefighter has been promoted to the position.
From the Kansas City Star:
The last Black Kansas City firefighter in the running to be chief was James Garrett, who endured open racism for decades and rose to become the department’s spokesman and deputy chief. But he was passed over for the top job, and when he filed a federal discrimination complaint, the city paid him a $111,000 settlement.
Brown, the third Black woman hired by the KCFD, suffered both racism and sexual harassment in her 22 years with the department. She said fellow firefighters drained her oxygen tank, and a future fire chief abandoned her under a collapsed wall in a burning building.
Stephen Seals, a Black battalion chief, tried to stick up for Black cadets at the academy when one of them was called a racial slur in 2016, according to court filings. But when he confronted a white peer, Seals was disciplined and, according to a second lawsuit he filed, he was passed over for promotion in retaliation.
Clearly, it’s not as if the KCFD wasn’t aware of the racism embedded in its culture. It simply didn’t care.
Garrett recounted an incident to the Star from 26 years ago when he was a fresh-faced cadet in training. A Black cadet was leading the training when two white firefighters drove by the class and yelled a racial slur at him.
“They shouted, ‘Go get ’em, nigger,’ or ‘Lead ’em, nigger,’ or something like that,” Garrett said. “... And everybody in the class heard it.”
While Garrett and his fellow Black cadets reported the incident to Carolyn Mitchell, their then-captain and the first Black woman in the department, Mitchell’s higher-ups didn’t take any disciplinary action against the firefighters who used the slur.
“I guess what I thought was after I complained about it that somebody would take up that cause and at least reprimand them, something would happen,” Garrett told the news outlet. “And when nothing happened, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Garrett went on to say that in his over 20 years with the department he regularly dealt with racist behavior from his fellow firefighters, having to straight up tell people to not use the N-word in front of him in “almost every station” he’s ever gone to.
While Garrett managed to rise through the ranks, becoming the first Black deputy chief in 15 years, his career track is very much the exception not the rule. Of the nearly 1,300 people employed by the department, only 14 percent are Black, despite Black people making up 30 percent of the city’s population.
From the Star:
At Station 23 in the Northeast, 29 of the 30 firefighters are white, even in a ZIP code where more than 23% of the residents are Black and 36% are Hispanic, according to an estimate from the 2018 American Community Survey. Every captain that has worked there for the last 10 years has been white.
Over the last 10 years, Black firefighters made up only 7% of the more than 200 firefighters assigned to Station 35, on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard just east of Prospect Avenue. The station sits in a ZIP code that is 88% Black.
Both stations are home to busy pumper crews that respond to thousands of emergency calls, including hundreds of potential fires, every year.
Any effort by the city to address the long-standing problem has basically been a non-starter. In the 1980s, a policy was in place that mandated every fourth department promotion had to go to either a woman or non-white person. This policy ended after a group of white firefighters pulled out the good old “reverse discrimination” card.
Oh white people, y’all really don’t change.
It’s not as if all this racism hasn’t come at a cost to the city, either. Over the last 20 years the city has had to pay out $2.5 million in judgments, attorney’s fees, court costs and litigation expenses to settle lawsuits by former employees alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
Lynne Bratcher, an attorney who has represented many Black firefighters in these cases, is frustrated at the lack of action the city has taken when it comes to the blatant racism that exists within the department.
“Corporations when they see that they have a policy that is promoting discrimination, they’ll change it because it is in their best interests financially,” Bratcher said. “The city does not operate with this good business judgment and it’s frustrating.”