2002-01-19 / Columnists

From the G-Man

By Gary G. Toms
The Scars of Racism

Hey people! Recently, the media has been covering a story about the backlash from New York City firefighters over a plan to erect a statue honoring the three firefighters who raised the American flag at Ground Zero. The statue is supposed to depict the three firefighters as African-American, Latino and Caucasian, instead of the three white firefighters who originally raised the flag. All this on the eve on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Go figure.

Many people, including the widows and comrades of fallen firefighters, are flaming mad over the decision to erect the statue. They claim that it distorts the truth of what actually happened on September 11.

Thomas Manley, the sergeant-at-arms in the Uniformed Firefighters Association, stated, "I would hope that the makers of the statue would understand that the politically correct thing to do would be to put the original three firefighters on the statue."

I have read a number of columns and reports in the daily papers about this matter. I have seen people from the New York City Fire Department, the Vulcan Society, which is a fraternity of Black firefighters within the FDNY, and television commentators address this issue with great zeal. Now, let me give you G-man's assessment.

This issue comes down to two things, money and artistic license. No more, no less, and end of story. People have to understand that a corporate sponsor, in this case Forest City Ratner, can do whatever it wants with its money. You don't tell a man who's willing to spend $70,000 on a Jaguar to go and buy a used Hyundai, or that he can't buy it. If that's what he wants to do with his money, that is his right. Get the point?

Secondly, and this is the critical point which was brilliantly put forth by Francis X. Gribbon, deputy commissioner for public information for the FDNY, "This is an artistic representation; we are not seeking to have an exact replica of the photograph." That leads me to believe that the idea to have the firefighters depicted as racially balanced came from the artist. It's the "Ya Mama's Last Supper" (Naked Female Jesus) controversy all over again. If this is truly the case, then people need to fold up tent and go home because there is no argument here. If you want to make the case that maybe certain people are purposely riding this story for political or media stardom, I can agree with that to some degree. However, if it simply comes down to artistic interpretation and/or expression, people should be more accepting of the piece.

It is amazing to me how quickly people want to start screaming that this statue is creating divisions, when the fact of the matter is not one single person within the hierarchy of the New York City Fire Department, or with the State of New York, is ever willing to offer an answer as to why so few minorities are represented in the department. The numbers and statistics are there to prove that an enormous discrepancy exists in the hiring of Black and Latino firefighters, but everybody wants to run and tuck tail when asked about it. Well, I'm not running, and, with all due respect to the great relationships I have established with some firefighters, I dare someone to finally answer the question.

I am not alone in my sentiment because I've actually questioned members of the FDNY about this situation, and many expressed that they would love to see more Blacks and minorities within their brotherhood. How can anyone from within the FDNY classify the statue as divisive, when they work within a city agency that can easily be viewed the same way, based on its hiring practices? That is simply ludicrous.

It is very clear that this is an extremely sensitive topic for many. Addressing the relationship between Blacks, Latinos and whites in this country has always been a touchy subject, and this situation has even greater emotional impact because it is directly related to something that has profoundly affected us all…the World Trade Center attack.

If the plan is carried out, and the statue is created, I predict there will be an increase in racial tensions in the city, and perhaps the country. Moreover, if the statue never sees the light of day, there will still be an increase in racial tensions. The situation will exist because someone, or some race, will feel they were slighted in the decision.

Whatever the final outcome, one thing is perfectly clear. The controversy over the statue has served to remind us that we still have some deep-rooted issues to deal with, in New York City and the country, regarding race relations. Things happen for a reason, and it is my firm belief that this controversy came to be because we must admit to ourselves that we finally need to address the issue of race in America. All the flag waving, reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, and sense of national patriotism doesn't mean a damn thing if we are still harboring certain prejudices about each other. This statue is showing us that.

Slavery, the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, Brown vs. The Board of Education, Plessey vs. Ferguson, discriminatory housing and employment practices, racial profiling and the dragging death of James Byrd are just a few painful examples of ghosts that have haunted Blacks for years in this country. This is why the Vulcan Society spoke out in favor of the artist's rendition. Their actions had nothing to do with political correctness. They were simply seeking social balance, fairness and a chance to be represented, which has not happened within the history and context the department. For whites, this is hard to grasp, and in order to have a total understanding, you would have to have lived as a Black person in this country over the last 60 to 70 years, which is not that long ago. We have come far since then, but there is still a long, long way to go.

It's too bad that so many people, including the widows and comrades of fallen firefighters, view it as "political correctness" run amok. I have a feeling that was not the intent of the artist(s) involved. It's not about political correctness. The piece is about being acknowledged and respected as an equal, and certain factions within the FDNY should be the last ones to start talking about how certain groups are acting in a divisive manner.

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