When I first sat down to write the intro for my April Philadelphia magazine story on the Philadelphia Fire Department, I wrote: “The specter of reverse racism looms in the background of my feature on Philadelphia fireman Jack Slivinski Jr.” Then I realized that would be a lie. The truth is, race is this story’s foreground. Slivinski, who killed himself with a gunshot at 32 after a run-in with department brass, was white. The fire commissioner who was ultimately in charge of disciplining him, Lloyd Ayers, is African-American.
Was any aspect of their exchange actually influenced by race? The short answer is: I have no idea.
The charge of racism remains one of the ugliest we can invoke against another human being, and where reverse racism is involved, the matter becomes doubly complicated. After all, racism is not really about what someone did, but why they did it. And while I often have to try and play pop psychologist to figure out what a subject is thinking, I can’t read minds. And, I must admit, I found myself particularly at a loss in reading the mind of Lloyd Ayers.
In fact, a week or so after putting the story to bed, the section that stuck with me is one I edited out myself:
Ayers displays surprisingly little emotion when I begin confronting him with the accusations union members have leveled against him: that he has doled out discipline in a racially biased fashion; that he favors firefighters who have played a major role in the African-American firefighter’s association, the Valiants, over everyone else; that, in short, after a career spent laboring in a white-dominated fire department, he’s getting payback.
His face hangdog, jowls loose with seeming disinterest, he offers up short answers, like “No,” and “That’s not true” delivered in a monotone. This goes on till finally I start pushing him to show some emotion:
“Doesn’t this make you angry, considering everything you’ve been through in the department? Aren’t you upset?”
He gives me a little something, then, indicating that he feels “personally insulted,” but while his words speak of anger his demeanor remains unmoved.
Part of this is undoubtedly his status as the leader of a paramilitary organization, and a man who chose to make his living running inside burning buildings: Emotions, in that world, are something a man learns to control. But I’ve interviewed similar men before, and they are human. Hit them with an offensive charge and their jaws tighten, their teeth show. Their emotions do reveal themselves if only in the effort it takes to conceal them. But Ayers speaks of feeling “personally insulted” in mild tones. And it’s here, I think, that our races have to enter into any analysis. And by that I don’t mean his dark skin and my lack of pigment. I mean our different experiences.
As I relate in the story, Ayers is an accomplished man, admired for his bravery by white coworkers. But nonetheless he had to fight his way through the ranks without the usual support system a white firefighter took for granted in the ’70s and ’80s. There was no wide network of lieutenants and captains seeking to groom Ayers for promotion. And even as he found his way to higher positions he kept encountering racist views and actions—a stuffed monkey his fellow firefighters used to crown the station Christmas tree as a “joke”; spit he found in his hat.
Can I, as a middle-aged white man, really judge how an African-American man embarking on his senior years is supposed to act when confronted by accusations of reverse racism? Yes, I expected him to show more emotion—particularly if he felt himself to be innocent. But is that fair? Is it not, in fact, entirely possible that deep inside, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers has been dealing with issues of race for so long, so intimately, that the topic barely stirs his blood anymore?
All this isn’t to say that Ayers is, or isn’t, guilty of dispensing discipline according to racial politics. I bring it up just to make the point that I had no hope of telling, one way or another, by looking into his eyes.