Chicago Sun-Times
Discussions across the racial divide

Mitchell column excerpt: The only test that matters

| 31 Comments | No TrackBacks

If my house catches on fire, I’m not going to worry about how high the firefighter scored when he or she applied for the job.

I’ll be too grateful that person had the capability to apply for the job, the character to get through the training needed to be on the job, and the courage required to do the job.

After all, when it comes to training to be a firefighter, aren’t those the things that matter the most?

Although the Chicago Fire Fighters Union is blasting the city’s latest fire exam as a “joke? because 83 percent of the people sitting for the test passed, the good news is that there will be a larger pool of applicants to draw from.

Of the 17,000 applicants who got 70 percent or better on the exam, 54 percent were white, 21 percent were African American, 20 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were Asian and Native American. Passing candidates will now be randomly ranked.

Those rankings will determine when a candidate will be called up for interviews, background checks, agility testing and training. Thus, a candidate who got a perfect score on the written test could flunk out in any of the other four categories, while someone who got only a passing grade on the written test could perform exceptionally well in all the other areas.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:


This is just a way for the Fire Dept. to dumb down the system to get more blacks and latinos on the Fire Dept. As far as who will be called up for interviews, most whites who got over a 70 can just about forget about being called. I would suggest those whites either go to school and get a degree, or start applying at fire departments in the suburbs and let Chicago become the next Detroit, Atlanta, or Washington D.C.

It's sad 'cuz it's true.

Mary, first you say that the only thing that should matter is the ability to put out a fire. Then you cry that there are not enough minorities on the force. Which is it?

I think that testing helps to show if a person can act rationally and expediently during a calamity.

Also, I bet that in Mary's town of Maywood Hispanics are under represented on the Fire Dept. but that, of course, doesn't matter.


Ken, I'm sure you understood my point.

Maywood has the same problem with its Fire Department as a lot of other suburbs. Most of the firefighters are white--not black or Hispanic.

I don't know if Jerry knows any fire fighters, I happen to know a few. None are rocket scientists. Obviously a minimum proficiency test is needed, but to think that the average human isn't capable of being a fire fighter is naive at best, supremacist at worst. Our firefighters are definitely brave men and women, but that shouldn't be confused with mental superiority. The old test basically amounted to a Jim Crow poll tax that allowed CFD brass to use nepotism to fill its ranks. Anyone afraid of a fair and open process should find somewhere else to live.

"A candidate who got a perfect score on the written test could flunk out in any of the other four categories, while someone who got only a passing grade on the written test could perform exceptionally well in all the other areas."

I agree it's about the person, their character and work ethics.

People have different strengths, and some people don't do well on written tests. I think the new exam is a good idea.

I'd like to know how you test for fearlessness.

Because that's the trait you need in a firefighter, someone who will not blink twice about rushing in a raging fire to pull out children, etc. I really could care less what color they are, but I doubt any ethnic group has a monopoly on courage.

A bigger issue to me with the Fire Dept is the weird way they schedule these guys for ridiculously long shifts (I think it's something like 2 days on, 3 off?), which essentially means we're paying people to sleep.

And it's common knowledge one of the perks of the job is that you have enough time off ou can get a second job.

Maybe we need to pay them a higher wage, or offer incentives so they can afford to live in the city, as they are required to do, but that just doesn't seem right.

Because the majority of firefighters in Maywood are white, that's a problem? That is about as racist a comment as can be said. If you feel the amount of minority firefighters and police officers should correlate with the color of the people who live in the suburb. Then you surely have no problem with Winnetka's, Barrington's, or Naperville's departments being all white.

To K. Brown, me and my people are not afraid of a fair and open process, that's why we support everyone taking the test and being judged by whatever grade they receive. It's the affirmative action or quota hawks who are afraid to compete on a level field because they fear they cannot make it unless they are given special privileges. As for the old test being a Jim Crow poll tax, that's the typical response that I would expect from someone who can't make it on their own.

Now, this is wisdom:

"Being a slave meant that someone else was responsible for your well-being. Being a free person means that you, yourself are responsible, no matter the past. That is hard responsibility for some to accept. It's easier to sue somebody."

-N. Steinberg

I do agree there should be some form of academic requirement, but let's remember the job is as demanding physically as it can be mentally. I know many firefighters and some defaulted into that position because their other choices were not available. Relationships have always been the key to whether an applicant was successful. How can all forget about the scandals that were once in the news about certain people who had copies of the test? If you think of it in those terms, you do have to question results. The same was true for the police test. How come in movies the police officer was always Irish? What did that imply about the Germans, Swedes, and Italians? The connection, or as we say “hook-up? has been and always will be a factor. When are we going to change that? It has to start somewhere.

Rules have always been changed to accommodate. Sports is a classic example; the NBA now has defensive three seconds, the three point line, zone defense, no high school players turning pro, etc. Football has softened the game to protect the quarterback more. And quarterback mobility is now of paramount concern. These changes have given the opportunity for diversity, which has helped these sports to attract and attain corporate participation and sponsorships. And most would agree that the game has gotten better. Sports are often used as a metaphor for life, and in this case we call it leveling the playing field.

Power and prestige are never given away without some form of resistance. Last I checked, there were not any tests that measure character and courage. Therefore, any other conversation about testing is a way to maintain control. Firefighters are courageous and I have known several in my day. They are so very human, but at a young age we are taught to admire them for their courage in the face of imminent danger. Let's not lose track that as a human, we all have a certain amount of dignity and determination and it is not a matter of color. As America matures our ideas of what courage and dignity looks like will diversify. We are now in the midst of change and everybody is a little uncomfortable and trying to look into the future and feel comfortable with the fact that those in certain positions may not look like the old ideals, but feel confident that everything will be just fine.

Jerry, would you please be the Pied Piper and lead all frighten, neglected, and overlooked white people to the suburbs. It is not as though most don't live there now with city jobs anyway. Just come get the rest of the white people, okay?

Also, will you hold their hands on the first day of college, just as you would a nursery school age child, or kindergartener who has to tell Mommy bye-bye, but don't want to let go of their leg? You know what I am talking about, the ones who scream, "I DON'T WANT TO GO!", "I DON'T WANT TO GO!"

Jerry, white people have to let go some times, and this is one of those times.

Don't worry, Asians, Latinos, and Blacks will not burn the city down, like Ms O'Leary ( who was white ) and her infamous cow....*smile*....

Breathe deeply Jerry and let go, do it one more time and let go. Now play your pipe and lead all the white people to the 'burbs, okay?

I know you are aware of the reparations appeal going on here. In light of that I just read Steinberg's column today where he again states his opinion why descendants of slaves should not be compensated. Have you ever spoken w/ him on this issue directly? I have a feeling you will address this issue in the near future (I hope you will anyway) and can't wait to see how your readers respond. As to Steinberg's drivel, all the points he makes actually make the case for reparations stronger. He obviously doesn't comprehend the wholeness of American Slavery. It's ties to the Government and Church. I hope to hear from you soon on this issue.

Best regards,
Kelly T. Brown


I don't agree with Steinberg on this issue.


Maywood, Mary's hometown,
has only 1 Latino firefighter out of a force of 43. Latino's make up 15% of Maywood's population and the fire chief is black as well as and the mayor and his administration.

Maybe she should be throwing stones in her own backyard.

MITCHELL COMMENT: Does that mean white colulmnists who live outside of the city should only write about their suburbs?

Absolutely laughable, Firemen & Police Officers aren't required to be a brain trust. Their jobs are repetitive, counting on their reaction to any given siuation. Somebody explain to me exactly where do you get a degree in roll up the hose 101, turn on the hydrant 101, come on people, fire fighting is a learnt behavior at the most. Its nothing you going to get out of a book. YOU learn this trade from actual participations......appear some people are under the illuision that only they, and people who look like them can save the city..

At least the fire department has a test available. My city job and classification has no testing and all the interviews for promotions are conducted by "clout list" good old boys.

Ginger Rugai's 19th Ward residents have really flourished under that system! Of course she isn't concerned about that.

The reason for the test is to evaluate the applicant in order to distinguish the mentally and physically qualified from the ones that are not suited for this line of job.

Believe it or not!Not all people can do everything some are qualified for some things and not others.

so, cant we blog about the reparations debate? you really distort Steinbergs column, but then, he is smart and speaking on the academic and legal plane, not the street cred plane. The blame for slavery lies with the african kings who sold them. make no mistake. so, go sue them...oh wait, they dont have deep pockets....


Who said you can't blog about the reparations debate?

Well, since you gave the OK, I have some questions for the reparations advocates.

First, aside from the obvious facts, how do you prove who was involved with slavery and who wasn't? Are the guilty only those who participated or do we include those who did nothing to stop it? Or, do we make white people the guilty party?

Once we have established a guilty party, how do we go about assessing damages? Do we go after individual companies? What if those companies were privately held companies at the time and have since gone public? If it is the government is responsible, how do we assess damages? Do we create a blanket tax that blacks are exempt from? Or, do assess the tax only on white people? If so, how do we distinguish which white people had anscestors who were slave owners? What if they had one parent who did and one who didn't? Do they have to be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they didn't have anscestors who were involved?

The fact is, the lines are all so crossed now that it is almost impossible to lay the blame with any group. As much as some would like to do so, you can't blame the innocent for the mistakes of their anscestors. And you can't blame the innocent whose anscestors had absolutely nothing to do with the problem.

If the reparations debate was about getting an official apology I might have more sympathy for those involved. As it is, I have no sympathy for those who want to punish the innocent along with the guilty.

Douglas, I am not sure what you're insinuating by asking me to hold the hands of white students entering college? I guess that you are saying white people are whiners? Which is ridiculous because we all know that blacks have taken whing and complaining to a new level. As for leading my people to the suburbs, that is a job I would gladly take on. But we have to have an agreement that you won't follow us to the burbs. Because history has told us that blacks are always trying to live in our neighborhoods and go to our schools instead of staying amongst their own. As for you and yours taking over Chicago, fine with me. I bet you will do as good a job as you've done in Harvey, Ford Heights, and Detroit.

Everyone here keeps talking about how it does not take a rocket scientist to run into a burning building to save people and put out fires. I do not recall anyone from the media, either print or television talking about how fires are down and the shift to Emergency Medical Services over the last 15 years. It may take a strong idiot to run into a fire but it takes a person with a brain get through the EMS Academy. Until you experience it on the street of how to handle a human being with a gunshot wound to the head, a stabbing victim, a heart attack victim or any other type of tragedy. I would bet the lives of my two beautiful boys any of you would be praying to God when you are making that 911 phone call that well qualified comes to your door to save your 13 year old daughter that was just shot in the head, someone with a great brain and outstanding skill in EMS to save her life. I know that is what I would be praying for. There is WAY more to this job than being big and strong. It takes more than just a Ninth grade exam and a passing score.

Also a note to RC on Sept. 29. What did you do yesterday, maybe relax and watch the Bears game, go to bed early. I was at the firehouse yesterday. We did 26 runs. A small fire in the morning. A couple of car accidents. A 26 y/o male shot in the stomach. Many battery victims, someone with chest pain etc. I got about 90 minutes of sleep yesterday in the 24 hours I was there. Know the facts before you come to a public forum and shout out that firemen sleep all day while the City tax payers pay the bill,,,FOOL

"MITCHELL COMMENT: Does that mean white colulmnists who live outside of the city should only write about their suburbs?"

Of course not. But if you believe that one group is getting more than it's 'fair share' then you should apply that across the board. I've never heard a black pol/columnist applying the rules across the board. If it disproportionately advantages blacks---so be it.

I remember hearing a black Chicago alderman complaining that whites/Latinos who lived outside the city were allowed to take the police/fire test then had 6 months to move there if they were hired. The alderman was going to introduce a law preventing this. But he had no problem with blacks living outside a 'white' suburb being able to apply for jobs there AND not even being forced to live there if they get hired.

You want us to believe in an intangible trait so that you can justify your stance. Would you ask us to lower the standards for doctors or for a fairer comparison, paramedics, because of some courage quotient? Me, I want the smartest and the strongest to come in a burning house after me, not a well-intentioned, but less-qualified courageus person. 'Cause we'll burn together.

Can take a girl out of the projects, but can't take the projects out of the girl, huh ?

why is it that white america, when something like this issue is brought to light act like they dont have any idea what we are talking about.fair is not a color ,do you know what nepotism, favoritism,and racism mean

"why is it that white america, when something like this issue is brought to light act like they dont have any idea what we are talking about.fair is not a color ,do you know what nepotism, favoritism,and racism mean"

I'd imagine for the same reason that black folks don't like to admit that under John Stroger, and almost certainly to be continued under Todd Stroger, the Cook County government was guilty of the exact same thing.


Not all black folks think alike.

Who cares? if people aren't qualified they should not hire them or if they get by they shuold fire them. I'm sure they don't deliberately hire rejects, no matter the race.

I enjoyed the sports analogy. Referencing the three second clock in the NBA.

it's funny to criticize generalization by generalizing. Genius "White America"

Sept 29 Dave


Not all black folks think alike."

Touche - however, this would of course be true of white folks as well, no?


I don't think there's an assunption that all white folks think alike, is there?

"Absolutely laughable, Firemen & Police Officers aren't required to be a brain trust."

I think that part of the uproar over this test is a misunderstanding of what it takes to be a firefighter or police officer. A hundred years ago firefighter training basically consisted of the chief telling you to "put the wet stuff on the red stuff." Now the training for a firefighter is much more complex. Firefighters have to know everything from building structures, entry, exit and rescue procedures, fire suppression, biohazard, terrorist response, EMS and a host of other disciplines. My understanding for the purpose of the entrance exam is to determine what persons are smart enough to be taught. It's not meant to say this person tested well so he or she can become a firefighter right now. It is meant to weed out the person's who will likely not be able to comprehend the training that will be a constant part of their life after they get hired. Actually many other cities across the nation require a 4 year degree to become a firefighter which puts Chicago way behind the curve because they don't require fire applicants to have any college. Even the Chicago Police Department requires a minimum 60 credit hours. I wholeheartedly agree that the fire department needs to be more diversified but putting out a flawed test is not the answer. A better approach I think is to enable young people of all races and genders to start thinking about and training for a career in the fire department early by participating in the fire cadets, having a strong background in science (and physical fitness) and going to college.

Mitchell comment " If my house catches on fire, I’m not going to worry about how high the firefighter scored when he or she applied for the job.

I’ll be too grateful that person had the capability to apply for the job, the character to get through the training needed to be on the job, and the courage required to do the job.

After all, when it comes to training to be a firefighter, aren’t those the things that matter the most?"

Once again Mary the dumbing down of government services is just fine as long as black applicants get in. Lets have a whole fire department of C minuses as long as they could run into a building and get you out.

I know you dont think it applies but if you put a little thought into it a C minus guy doesn't know as much as a A plus guy thats what tests determine.. Maybe he got a c minus becuase he carried people wrong and would snap their necks or he received a cminus because he forgets to bring oxygen for the victims or he received a c minus because he dosent understand how fire spreads etc etc

Mary you also forget the fact that all these C minus guys at one point maybe promoted to higher positions by other C minus guys and be put in charge of developing policy and safety planning for the city.
For my tax Dollar why not get every A plus guy in first, same as corporations do. Seems like stupid policy to take less qualified people over more qualified people why should tax payers always get less for their dollar than the private sector?

The CFD exam was at a 5th grade level at best. How do I know? My son who is in 4th. grade took the practice exam for the CFD and scored a 67%. Give him another year and he'll be "qualified". What a complete joke!

The problem is that when a black scores a 70% he will be hired. He may get on the job years before a black that scored a 100%. The city really, really wants black fireman. Problem is you can't have a criminal record and you have to have a high school diploma. That is a problem from within their culture. The city will make sure that form this day to the day a black fireman retires he will always recieve "special" treatment in regaurds to interview process, fire academy and most importantly PROMOTIONS. In Mary's world of 2006 this is not only fair but the right thing to do. Makes me wonder how you got your job Mary. I'm sure you were the most qualified. Wink.Wink.

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Mary Mitchell published on September 27, 2006 8:54 PM.

Mitchell column excerpt: State lending rules just another way to box out working class was the previous entry in this blog.

Slavery was the black Holocaust, so treat it with the same respect is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.