Tennie Pierce, a black 19-year veteran firefighter, recently won a $2.7 million settlement from the Los Angeles City Council.
Here's the story. Following a firehouse volleyball game, fellow firefighters laced Pierce's spaghetti with dog food to "humble" him. Pierce, who calls himself "the Big Dog," took a few bites, saw three co-conspirator firefighters -- two whites, one Latino -- laughing, and demanded to know why the chuckling.
Pierce, after learning that the firefighters -- in an undoubtedly good-natured way -- placed dog food in his spaghetti, called the prank "racist"! He hired a lawyer, found an "expert" witness who associated the consumption of dog food with "300 years" of discrimination against blacks, and successfully settled the case with the city.
Los Angeles Times reporter Sandy Banks, in an article about the award, failed to mention a few salient facts: that Pierce somehow managed to survive on the force for almost 20 years; that fellow firefighters referred to Pierce as a "turd stirrer" -- meaning he routinely pulled pranks on others; that the 6-foot 5-inch Pierce often referred to himself as "the Big Dog"; that the incident was apparently a reaction to a volleyball game won by Pierce during which he repeatedly urged to his teammates to "feed the Big Dog" by throwing the ball to him; and that, in the frat boy tradition of many firefighters, his co-workers likely fed him dog food as a display of affection, knowing that, after all, Pierce had pulled pranks on many others during his long career -- photos of which (including Pierce's involvement in the shaving of the pubic hairs of a fellow firefighter) later appeared on the Internet.
Days before I read about the firefighter's award, my 91-year-old dad and I watched a movie called "Proud." Narrated by the late, great Ossie Davis, the movie dramatized the experience of black sailors aboard the USS Mason during World War II. The ship became the only black-manned ship that actually saw combat. As a destroyer escort, it shepherded Allied convoys through German sub-filled waters, taking risks even the vaunted English Navy refused, deeming the mission too treacherous. Indeed, black sailors welcomed the assignment to the ship because, during this military-segregated era, they wished to prove themselves by seeing actual combat rather than engaging in "menial" labor.
In one scene, a German sub launched a torpedo at the USS Mason, but the highly skilled blacks -- thought too dumb to master hi-tech equipment including sonar detection -- skillfully evaded the torpedo. They then counter-attacked by launching depth charges. The men of the USS Mason, despite their heroics, never received a commendation, even though their commander sent a letter to Washington, urging recognition for these brave sailors. As a result of lobbying by the grandson of one of the sailors described in "Proud," President Clinton honored the surviving crewmen during a long-delayed ceremony. Finally, the USS Mason crew received their rightful commendation for bravery and sacrifice.
It's difficult to describe the feeling of honor and pride I felt as I watched my dad watching the movie. Every five minutes I looked at my dad, as he watched the movie with his typically stoic expression. My dad, you see, served as a cook during the war, earning the rank of staff sergeant. He spent time on Guam as soldiers prepared for an assault on the island of Japan, a mission aborted, of course, because of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He, too, like many black soldiers, received little recognition for his contribution. My dad once told me he enlisted as a Marine in 1943 because "it seemed to me that the Marines were all about action. And I wanted it."
After my dad and I watched "Proud," he said it reminded him of a wartime story -- a story he never told me. "Son," he said, "we black enlistees had just gone through training at Montford Point, North Carolina. We gathered to hear a speech -- supposedly inspirational -- given by a white major. The officer said, 'You know, I traveled all over the world. But I only realized that we were truly at war when I came home and saw you people wearing our uniforms.'" Insulted, my dad said he and every Marine stood in a silent protest of the major's blatantly racist remark.
This brings us back to Mr. "Rin Tin" Tennie Pierce. Enjoy your $2.7 million. When the next Veterans' Day comes around, think about how your bonanza trivializes the grit, determination and honor with which black men and women withstood insult, degradation and abuse during Jim Crow America. They stood tall and demonstrated by word and deed that black men and women -- like my dad -- considered themselves Americans, not African-Americans, who only wanted an opportunity to show their ability.
Your crass, manipulative use of the race-card-for-money insults countless men and women who endured indignities, marched and died, in order to provide you the right to work as a firefighter -- an opportunity historically denied to qualified black men and women.
You, sir, are a disgrace.