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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts: Pushing for diversity in right and wrong places

January 24, 2002

It was late on the afternoon of Sept. 11. The towers were down, the firefighters in retreat. That's when one, Dan McWilliams, saw the flag. An American flag, attached to a broken pole, lying among the debris in the nearby marina. He picked it up and started back toward Ground Zero.

Along the way, he ran into a couple of other firefighters, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein, who saw what he had in mind and volunteered to give him a hand. When they reached the disaster site, the three men were surprised to find an intact flagpole jutting from an intact ledge. They climbed up and rigged their flag to it.

Unknown to them, a news photographer was watching. He raised his camera and snapped a shot.

You've seen Thomas Franklin's picture a hundred times. It's among the most famous photographs that awful day produced. For many people, it was an eerie echo of another celebrated shot — the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. In one frame of film, Franklin managed to capture the resilience and resolve of a shaken nation. People look at that picture and see the best of America.

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Or at least, most people do. The Fire Department, ironically enough, seems to see something else entirely.

This has become apparent since work began on a memorial statue modeled on the photograph. As it happens, Eisengrein, Johnson and McWilliams are white. This was probably not a problem for them, but it is for the Fire Department. So it, along with the statue makers and the company that owns the department's headquarters building, came up with a solution.

Namely, the statue will depict one of the firefighters as black, another as Hispanic. This, they say, will make it more symbolically inclusive of all the hundreds of firefighters who died that day.

And when you think about it, that makes a certain kind of sense. Nonsense, to be exact.

I wouldn't blame those three firefighters if they felt a bit betrayed right now. Certainly, one does not usually get into that business because one is looking for ego strokes. On the other hand, THEY were the ones who raised that flag and inspired a nation. Not some mythical black, Hispanic, Asian or female firefighters called forth from some bureaucrat's imagination to represent diversity.

THEY did it. Three white guys. So the statue ought to reflect that fact. That it apparently won't says nothing about diversity and everything about political correctness.

And frankly, blacks and Hispanics should be just as insulted by this as the white guys whose images are being erased. Maybe even more so.

Consider: New York City, according to the last census, is home to 8 million people, 26.6 percent of whom are black, 27 percent of whom are Hispanic. Yet a fire department spokesman says that, of its 11,500 men and women, only 2.7 percent of the department's firefighters are black and only 3.2 percent Hispanic. In other words, a department that supposedly values diversity enough that it will rewrite history to depict it has yet to achieve it — or even come close — within its own ranks.

Why am I not surprised? We do this all the time — place symbolism over substance as if nobody's smart enough to know the difference. The Fire Department's gesture is a condescending pat on the head to its black and Hispanic constituencies, a demeaning and patronizing sop to diversity. Who gives a rat's hindquarters about seeing black and Hispanic people on some statue where they don't belong? I'd rather see them on fire trucks where they do.

For my money, this whole affair bespeaks a certain smallness of vision. After all, to the degree Thomas Franklin's picture reflects any human distinction, it's neither race nor ethnicity. It's nationality.

We were attacked, not because some of us are black or some Hispanic, but because all of us are Americans. Contrary to popular belief, these identities are not mutually exclusive.

So there's something inherently offensive in the belief that the image of these three white men must be doctored so that it will represent people with brown skin or Spanish surnames.

The truth is, it already does.

>>Leonard Pitts writes for the Miami Herald

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