News, commentary and analysis by leaders of the Communist Party USA in New York State. We discuss State politics and issues in New York City, covering developments in labor, civil rights education, housing and more.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

White Firefighters Stand Up Against Racism in Coram, NY

There are numerous examples in the media of racism and bigotry in our capitalist United States. Rarer are those examples of working-class solidarity across race lines. The later, of course, is a more accurate reflection of life today. Working people in small and anonymous ways stand up to discrimination and attempts to divide them racially everyday.

This fact contradicts the assumption many have that white workers are somehow more racist than white elites. That education and affluence are the keys to overcoming bigotry. Of course this myth goes hand-in-hand with the idea that racism is just an "opinion." In fact, the rich and the corporations fuel racism to divide workers and to increase profits, and to prop up the system as a whole. An individual white worker can certainly be bigoted, but institutional racism serves to undermine his wages, benefits and rights. That fact is learned by workers in struggle. It is the experience of the class struggle which is a key factor (enhanced, of course, by political education and training) in winning white workers to fight racism, both as an act of solidarity and an act of self-interest.

A dramatic example of fact occurred this week on Long Island recently in the town of Coram, NY. Coram, in Suffolk County, is a small city of 35,00 and is more than 75% white.

On May 19, a white fire district employee said to one of the few black firefighters in the town, "I don't like black people." When he heard about the incident, Fire Department Chief Ronald Curaba, who is white, confronted the official and literally got in his face condemning his comment and action.

In response, the Fire Commissioners voted to suspend the Chief , accusing him of assaulting the official. The official, who claims he was only joking was not punished.

But this wasn't a case of a lone hero. In response the the Chief's firing, the three assistant fire chiefs under him resigned in protest and said they wouldn't stand for racism. One of them was quoted in an article New York Newsday Friday.

"We don't tolerate racism," said Second Assistant Chief Robert Kinahan, one of the three who resigned. "This is a brotherhood. There's no room for that."

The Fire Commissioners seemed to disagree. Not only did they not punish the offender, they defended his comments at a hearing on the issue, also quoted in Newsday:

Commissioner Van Johnson insisted the remark was not racially charged.

"He said he didn't like black people. If I don't like Polish, Jewish, Catholics -- is that racist?" Johnson asked roomful of more than 50 volunteers gathered at the firehouse on Middle Country Road.

"Yeah, it is!" several volunteers shouted back.

"Isn't a man entitled to his opinion?" Johnson countered.

A voice across the room answered, "It's bigotry!"

While there is a stereotype of firefighters being racist, this incident tells a different tale. Of course, many fire departments are still heavily segregated and racist hazing of new Black and Latino recruit remains a practice in some places. But this story shows that when workers of different races stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the assembly line, at the negotiating table, on the picket line or in a burning building, racist ideas begin to break down. They learn the power of unity through the struggle and their class consciousness , their class identity emerges.

This is one of the reasons why desegregation is so important. When workers of different races work together, they begin to see where racism really comes from and who it serves. The heroic firefighters in Coram, NY are proof of that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting story. Thanks.