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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Judge: Boston Fire Department Must Hire Four White Men

Aired August 26, 2003 - 20:32   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: A judge has ordered the Boston Fire Department to hire four men as quickly as possible. They are white. They sued, claiming they were passed over in favor of minority candidates who had lower scores on civil service tests.
The judge not only ordered the four men be given jobs, but that they also receive nearly three years' worth of back pay and seniority. City officials say they are exploring their options.

One of the men who sued, Sean O'Brien, joins me from Boston, along with his attorney who represented the firefighters, Harold Lichten. And we hope at some point in our Boston bureau Lenny Alkins will be joining us, the president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP.

Welcome, Sean. Welcome Harold.

Sean, I want to start off with you first this evening. We want to talk a little bit about how you took your first firefighter's test back in 1986. You have taken it five times now, gotten high scores, but no admission to the fire department. What does this decision mean to you and why is it so important?

SEAN O'BRIEN, PLAINTIFF: It's the conclusion of a lifelong dream. My dad was a captain on the fire department. I lost him as a young man. And it's something that I've always wanted. So I'm pleased.

ZAHN: How frustrating was the fight?

O'BRIEN: Up until the last three years ago, I was really in the dark. I wasn't sure how the procedure happened. And since we filed three years ago, I've become painfully aware of the antiquated quota system that they had. But I'm happy now and I'm willing to get on with my life.

ZAHN: And when you say you became painfully aware of the quota system...

O'BRIEN: Yes?

ZAHN: ... how concerned were you to talk openly about your being passed over, your perception that you were passed over simply because you were white?

O'BRIEN: Well, it wasn't a perception. It turned out to be a reality. And I was not concerned at all. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood. I live in a diverse neighborhood now. I've worked my whole adult life with people of color and people of Spanish surnames, and I have nothing to hide.

ZAHN: Were you bitter at all during this very long drawn-out fight?

O'BRIEN: Not really bitter. Frustrated would be a better word.

ZAHN: All right.

Harold, let's talk a little bit about the implications of this decision. The appeals court saying that the fire department reached racial balance, and so the current system had outlived its usefulness. What do you think this will mean for other fire departments and potentially police departments across the country?

HAROLD LICHTEN, PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: Well, in Boston, the fire department had been hiring people for 27 years on a one-to-one basis. That is, they hired one minority for every one non-minority. It didn't hat matter what your score was. If you were a non-minority, you would have to be hired according to this quota system. The city of Boston's police department still does the same thing.

I think this is a message in other towns and cities that you have to pick people best -- based upon their abilities. Pick the best person for the job and not pick someone according to some quota system, whether they happen to be minority or non-minority. Because when someone stops at your house to fight a fire, you want the best person possible. You don't care what their color is. You want the best person.

And our hope is that this lawsuit will bring that about. That we will now get the best people hired and not people hired according to some rigid quota a system.

ZAHN: Let's bring Lenny Alkins into the discussion. He has just joined us from Boston as well.

Lenny, what is wrong about hiring people based on merit? Lenny, are you with us?

LENNY ALKINS, PRESIDENT, NAACP BOSTON CHAPTER: Hello. Yes, I am.

ZAHN: Yes. I don't know, Lenny, whether you could hear me or even hear Harold, for that matter. But the point he was making, he said it's about darned time that people were hired on the basis of merit. Scrap the quota system all together. What's wrong with that?

ALKINS: Well, I think there's a lot wrong with that. First of all, he is misrepresenting what the issue was.

The issue back in 1972 was the test. The test was found to be unfair to African-Americans and other people of color, and the courts found that the test had never been validated. And one of the things that the courts did was that they ordered that the test be scrapped and a new test be designed and be validated so that there would be a level playing field for those who took the exam.

The affirmative action piece came from the discrimination and the disparity which prevented people from being appointed because of a test that was unfair and not validated...

ZAHN: OK.

ALKINS: ... so that -- yes?

ZAHN: Let me ask you this, Lenny. We've only got about 20 seconds. We had a little bit of a technical glitch there.

ALKINS: Sure.

ZAHN: Are you willing to congratulate Sean O'Brien? He has talked very pointedly about his long, drawn-out fight. He took the test five times, I guess, and gotten very high scores. Now he's finally on the fire department, but only after filing this suit. What do you say to him tonight?

ALKINS: Well, I say to him, as it should be said to African- Americans and others who have had the long battle and the long fight against racism and discrimination, affirmative action is a measure to right a wrong that individuals use to prevent people from equal access and equal opportunity.

ZAHN: So is that a congratulations?

ALKINS: It is an I wish him luck, but I believe that the system is still flawed and there will be more litigation as a result of the actions that have come forward. Unfortunately, we have not reached the parity and we have not right the wrong that brought about the lawsuit to begin with. And unfortunately, he is just one of the individuals who happened to be caught up in a wrong situation.

ZAHN: All right. Gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there this morning. Sean O'Brien, thank you for sharing your story, alongside Harold Lichten and Lenny Alkins.

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