In the past week, Mayor Marion Barry's order to proceed with the swearing in of 58 new firefighters and the promotion of 68 others was fulfilled. A high percentage of those hired and promoted were black. This might suggest that the city was substantively addressing the festering problem of discrimination in one of our most racially imbalanced agencies.
But don't be misled.
The department remains nearly 70 percent white, as opposed to the city's 70 percent black population. And in the long run, Barry may be concurring in the abdication of status, turf and power for black firefighters, disregarding his own government's administrative processes and placing a Band-Aid on a cancerous sore.
Last fall, the D.C. Office of Human Rights directed that a far-reaching affirmative-action plan be implemented in the department and that 60 of the next 70 firefighters hired be from minority races. In the heat of the controversy that followed, the personnel director questioned the order, and the city administrator's office scheduled a public hearing, which lasted four months and ended a few days ago. The hearing examiner promised a decision within 20 days.
But Mayor Barry decided to hire and promote firefighters without waiting for the hearing examiner's findings and recommendations, rushing in a few black firefighters, but effectively frustrating the grievance process.
The mayor's stopgap action avoids the firecracker-hot issue of framing a comprehensive plan to integrate the fire department and make it reflective of the city's workforce. It avoids an election-year confrontation with the politically strong, militant and overwhelmingly white firefighters' union, which strongly opposed the affirmative-action order.
The mayor vehemently denies playing politics with the black firefighters, who've been trying for years to get some change in the department.
"The primary mission of the fire department is to fight fires," the mayor told me in a telephone interview Thursday night.
Besides, Barry said, the hearing findings are not binding on him. They are recommendations only, he said, and the entire process could drag on for months. "I'm not going to let somebody get burned up while the process goes on," he said.
But the hearings were an important part of the city's administrative process, an integral part of the equal employment opportunity laws of the District and the nation. The examiner's decision is an important first step in changing the system in a way that will help produce an effective affirmative-action plan for years to come.
Why spend the taxpayers' money, why spend the firefighters' money if the results are not worth waiting to hear? If he doesn't respect his own system, what reason is there to feel he will respect the hearing officer's order?
The mayor said he intends to begin next week making changes in the system of testing and promotion. But wouldn't it have been better to let the administrative process take its course and incorporate the changes in the body of law? At the very least, he should have waited to give symbolic support to the efforts of his own agencies.
The black firefighters have contended that politics is involved. But Barry insisted in the interview, "This is not a political decision. The safety and well-being of our citizens is above politics."
But, I asked him, what about the black firefighters' assertion that his decision was an effort to avoid offending the white firefighters and risking a showdown with their allies on Capitol Hill that could result in the city's budget being tied up?
That was not the case, Barry asserted, dismissing their charge and saying, with exasperation, at one unguarded moment, "Screw the black firefighters . . . If one baby had gotten burned up or one adult died, I would have been run out of town."
It strikes me as a ridiculous position for the black mayor of a predominantly black city to be, in effect, weakening the city's affirmative-action posture. Instead, he should be leading the city's efforts to have the laws of the country obeyed.
Barry knows better, too. It was Mayor-elect Marion Barry who announced in 1978 that one of the major findings of his transition team was, "There is no vigorous across-the-board, operating affirmative-action hiring program throughout the government."
The way the mayor acted regarding the fire department seems like a compromise of principle--not tactics. And that's something I'd never expect Marion Barry to do on a civil rights issue.