NEW YORK (AP) — The mostly white Fire Department of New York discouraged racial diversity by using recruitment exams that inadvertently discriminated against blacks and Hispanics, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Monday in a civil rights lawsuit.

The complaint alleges that the Fire Department administered exams in 1999 and 2002 that, while not purposely or obviously racist, were littered with SAT-like questions that are do not test an applicant’s ability to fight fires. “The city’s testing practices … do not select the firefighter applicants who will best perform their important public safety mission, while disproportionately screening out large numbers of qualified black and Hispanic applicants,” said Wan J. Kim, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit demands that the FDNY end “policies and practices that discriminate against blacks and Hispanics and that deprive (them) of employment opportunities because of race and/or national origin.” It cites a wide disparity between the scores of whites and those of blacks and Hispanics on the exams taken in 1999 and 2002. Because of the results, blacks and Hispanics “were underrepresented among higher-scoring applicants” on a list of eligible applicants from which the Fire Department intends to draw entry-level firefighters through May 2008.

City officials accused federal authorities of making misleading allegations about outdated written exams. They said recent recruitment efforts have resulted in triple the number of blacks and double the number of Hispanics taking the latest exam. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he made a personal appeal to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales not to take legal action.

“I thought it was an outrage when he threatened to sue us if we didn’t cave in,” Bloomberg said. “I think we’re doing what’s right. … We’ve created a new test, which we believe is fair to everyone, and we’re going to ride with that test.”

The lawsuit was prompted by what critics describe as the department’s woeful record on minority recruitment when compared with other big city departments. Of roughly 11,000 firefighters, only about 3 percent are black and 4.5 percent are Hispanic. By comparison, the New York Police Department is 16.3 percent black and 25.3 percent Hispanic.

“The claims are complex, but the case can be summed up in one line: New York City’s Fire Department is 2.9 percent African-American,” said Shayana Kadidal, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The center filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2002 on behalf of the Vulcan Society, a fraternal order of black firefighters, which led to the federal probe.

A city lawyer, Georgia Pestana, said in a statement that the lawsuit “will do nothing to increase fire department diversity” and “will only waste the resources of the city and federal government.”

(Source: Associated Press)

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