One afternoon after the trial let out, Capt. Paul Washington, a black officer in Engine Company 234, in Brooklyn, sat in the courthouse cafeteria with Firefighter John Coombs, president of the Vulcans. An hour earlier, Captain Washington had testified about racial insults he encountered on the job: the casual flinging of the N-word and the defacement of a flier for the Vulcans’ first memorial service after 9/11. Where the guest speaker’s name was printed, someone had scribbled other names: Buckwheat, Al Sharpton, Fat Albert.
Now, the two men explained that overt animus like that was fairly uncommon on the job. Instead, they complained of a corrosive obliviousness to race, discernible in acts as unsubtle as dinner-table condemnations of affirmative action and as seemingly innocuous as a recreation-room preference for Fox News.
“Our experience is different,” Captain Washington said. “There’s 50 white guys in a firehouse from the same background — middle-class, Long Island, the kids play soccer together — so, yeah, they’re having a ball. But if you’re the one black guy in the house, maybe you ain’t having so much fun.”