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An End to Racism?


My eyes rolled Monday morning when I got to they gym and looked at the Los Angeles Times. The day before, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had appointed 31-year department veteran Fire Marshal Douglas L. Barry as the interim fire chief. The Times’ headline read, “African American to run L.A. Fire Dept.”

“Really?” I asked myself. “Is there nothing else about this guy other than the color of his skin?” Given the need for the new fire chief to reform the department, wouldn’t it be more interesting and informative to highlight that Barry is an insider, veteran of the department?

“At least the Daily News will be better,” I told myself. But I was wrong. Right above the fold, the second-City’s second paper writes, “Black gets nod to head LAFD

Does everything have to be seen through a prism of race? The guy’s skin color is the least relevant fact to the story here. Would we emphasize race if the new Fire Chief were Asian, white or Jewish? I doubt it. Experience and viability as a change agent are what matters to Los Angeles’ Fire Department—but apparently not to the media.

Paradoxically, this false emphasis on skin color is what led Los Angeles to go looking for a new fire chief to begin with.

In 2004, Tennie Pierce, an LAFD veteran nicknamed “Big Dog” renowned for his own frat-house style follies around the fire station was the subject of a prank by his colleagues. They mixed dog food into his spaghetti and meat sauce.

Apparently being subject to such a prank was so traumatizing to Pierce that he could not work – and he sued the City. The City Council approved a $2.7 million settlement this fall – before consenting to a veto by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last month.

Only when you look at the color of people’s skin does a prank become racism. Pierce, it turns out is African American – just like the new fire chief. Those who pulled the prank on him were not. But does the mere color of people’s skin make an act racist? A court will soon decide that, since Pierce’s settlement was rejected.

The focus on Chief Barry’s race is a symptom of the same disease which led the City Council to accept the argument that a multi-million dollar payout was acceptable. If the victim is Black, it must be racism. That’s silliness.

Likewise the selection of an “African American” as the new Fire Chief tells us nothing about what he will do with the position. I’d rather know whether, as a department veteran, he has done anything to stand up against the culture within the department which allowed Pierce and his colleagues’ pranksterism to go on for decades.

We need to get beyond thinking about people in terms of the color of their skin if we want to end racism – yet claims of racism and our reactions to them, seem only to fuel its fires – often in the most unfortunate of ways.

Share  Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 2:54 PM | Permalink

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