(The Root) — Late Monday, news broke that an aspiring New York firefighter would resign from the city's fire department, where he was working as an EMT, because of racially inflammatory tweets. Making the matter even more newsworthy and shocking is that the author of the offensive tweets is the son of the city's fire commissioner, Salvatore Cassano.
Joe Cassano's targets included Jews, blacks and "Obama lovers." His missives include the statement, "I like jews about as much as hitler," and during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday he tweeted, "MLK could go kick rocks for all I care, but thanks for the time and a half today."
He also tweeted the term "shwoog," which is a slang term for the n-word, according to the Urban Dictionary. In addition to his father's prominent role leading the Fire Department of New York, Cassano's tweets drew attention because the FDNY has struggled with diversity for years.
Though the NYPD has been the subject of countless tragedies, controversies and lawsuits related to accusations of racial discrimination — from the Abner Louima case to the Amadou Diallo shooting — the FDNY has struggled in a less high-profile but significant manner as well.
According to a 2010 Village Voice cover story, "New York's fire department may, in fact, be the whitest large institution run by a major city in the United States. Your chance of becoming a firefighter in New York if you aren't white, Irish, or Italian, and come from a family of firefighters has traditionally been very slim."
Just last year the city was ordered to pay $128 million to black and Latino applicants who alleged the city had used a special entrance exam to intentionally exclude them from the FDNY. Quoting from the lawsuit at the time, CNN reported, "According to the most recent census data, black residents make up 25.6 percent of New York City's population; when this case was filed in 2007, black firefighters accounted for only 3.4 percent of the department's force. In other words, in a city of over eight million people, and out of a force with 8,998 firefighters, there were only 303 black firefighters. This pattern of underrepresentation has remained essentially unchanged since at least the 1960s."
The U.S. District Court judge also ruled that the city was to hire 239 black and Latinos.
The Village Voice noted that in a city in which 35 percent of the population is white, 90 percent of the fire department is white. By comparison, the NYPD is more than 16 percent black and 18 percent Latino.
The FDNY is far from alone in grappling with diversity issues. As of 2000, while just over 8 percent of the nation's firefighters were black, and just over 8 percent were Latino, blacks made up more than 12 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinos 16 percent.
During her nomination process before she was confirmed for the Supreme Court, one of the most heavily scrutinized lower-court cases of Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a 2009 case involving allegations of reverse discrimination at the New Haven Fire Department in Connecticut. In Ricci v. DeStefano, a white firefighter sued after the results for the exams necessary for promotions within the department — an exam he passed — were thrown out. The department did so in an effort to adhere to Title VII of civil rights law, which strives to prevent conscious and calculated discrimination, as well as unintentional discrimination, and therefore requires employers to take into account the racial impact of promotion and hiring decisions. No black firefighters passed the exam.
Though Sotomayor was one of the justices who rejected the appeal of Ricci, the white firefighter, when the case went before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Ricci won.
But ultimately, testing seems to be merely a symptom of a larger problem when it comes to diversity and the FDNY. It is a career notorious for being one in which fathers help sons get jobs, brothers help brothers and uncles help nephews. Having institutional support can go a long way, in everything from applying to the FDNY to prepping for the notorious exam and simply having the necessary support network to get through it all.
Understanding this, Commissioner Cassano previously met with aspiring African-American firefighters to discuss some of the department's diversity challenges. He didn't know that soon his son, whom he was apparently trying to fast-track into the department like so many fire department-connected fathers before him, would emerge as one of the institution's most high-profile diversity challenges.
To his credit, Commissioner Cassano didn't try to pass the buck, and had this to say of his 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 FDNY. I have worked hard for many years, as have so many people in the agency, to make the FDNY more diverse and inclusive. There is no place — and I have no tolerance — for statements that would harm the good reputation we enjoy due to our honorable service to all New Yorkers.
"As a parent, this is very painful for me, but I believe my son has made the right decision [to resign]," Cassano continued. "I love him very much, and with the support and love of our entire family, we will get through this together."
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.