Kansas City Black Firefighters’ Decades-Long Battle Against Racial Discrimination

African American fireman

For black firefighters in many of Kansas City’s most desireable stations, racial slurs and even physical violence are part of the job. But after decades of lodging racial discrimination complaints, and even many settled lawsuits, the “old white boys club” resists letting the neighborhoods’ firefighters reflect their community.

Kansas City Firefighters Case Highlights Racism in the Firehouse

The racism against Kansas City firefighter Eric Sanders started on day one. The newly assigned staff member brought doughnuts to break the ice, but they were thrown away uneaten. The next year was miserable for Sanders. The white firefighters he was assigned to work with kept him from sitting with them during meals, ridiculed him in front of his coworkers, and used the n-word as part of their casual conversation. One white firefighter testified during a deposition:

“[They] didn’t want n****ers working there, and they thought that n****ers were lazy.”

The racial discrimination continued even after an internal investigation supported his complaint about racial slurs. Sanders had intended to retire with the Fire Department, but after just under a year he had had enough. Describing his working environment as “pure hell”, Sanders was forced to quit. He hired an employment discrimination attorney and sued the department for racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

Black Firefighters Have Been Battling Racial Discrimination for Decades

Sanders is far from alone in his story. Over the years, a number of black firefighters have sued the Kansas City Fire Department for discriminatory practices. Sanders’ case resulted in a $300,000 jury verdict in 2014. Tarshish “T.J.” Jones sued the department for being passed over for promotion six times because of his race. In 2018, Clinton Ragan sued for wage discrimination against himself and other Black firefighters. That same year, Deputy Chief James Garrett settled his own lawsuit for $111,000 after being denied a promotion to fire chief.

In 2019, Sean Tiller filed a complaint after a white colleague, Joshua Alt punched him in the face and bit him. In the internal investigation that followed, Alt was represented by the firefighters’ union. Tiller was not. In April 2020, the City Council approved another $400,000 settlement for firefighter Kevin Hunt, who was denied a promotion to deputy chief.

Report Finds Systemic Firefighter Discrimination in Shifts, Station Assignments

The firefighter discrimination cases give a glimpse into something the Kansas City Star newspaper says is a systemic pattern across the city. A report they published in December 2020 shows that some of the city’s most desirable station assignments are located in racially diverse communities. Station 35, which has a 90% percent Black neighborhood has only 1 black firefighter on the staff. Next door, at the less desirable Station 29, seven of the 13 firefighters are black. Station 23, in a historic and ethnically diverse part of town also has only 1 non-white firefighter. Of the 193 workers over the last ten years, only 3 were black. Because of the dense population around these stations, there are more fires, which leads to more experience, and faster promotions for the firefighters assigned there. These positions were given overwhelmingly to white men.

What to Do When Racial Discrimination is a Way of Doing Business

Kansas City now has a new fire chief, Donna Lake, the first woman in the position. She says the department takes its responsibility to treat all employees fairly seriously. However, it will take time, money, training, and strict enforcement to change a workplace culture where the n-word was part of everyday speech and black firefighters were routinely passed over for high-quality station assignments and promotions.

When racial discrimination is par for the course, it often takes a coordinated effort by several employees to enforce the kind of systemic change needed to shift company culture. While an employer or government agency may be willing to pay settlements to individual employees, the price tag that comes with a coordinated or class action can get more attention, and put pressure on those in charge to make real changes.

At Eisenberg & Baum, we know how hard it can be to overcome decades of racial discrimination. Our employment discrimination attorneys, can help employees file their claims under Title VII and state civil rights laws individually, or as part of a larger class. We will push for system-wide changes, even in workplaces with decades-long histories of harassment. If you have been the victim racial discrimination, contact us. We'll meet with you and help create a strategy that protects you and your coworkers against ongoing racial bias and poor treatment.

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