A terribly insensitive question came to me while thinking about the fire in a downtown Chicago office building on LaSalle Street the other day.
What was the racial breakdown of the more than 20 firefighters who were taken to the hospital in that firefight?
"You're doing a racial story on last night's fire?" asked a Fire Department spokesman Tuesday. "I don't think we'll be able to get that [information] today," he said, angrily.
We didn't really need it, and I really don't care about any racial breakdown. But I didn't want the spokesman to know that.
"I'll pass your request along," the spokesman said, meaning, "Just forget it, you insensitive, offensive creature who thinks of race at a time like this."
Then it was time to aggravate colleagues here in the newsroom.
"What's the racial breakdown of the firefighters?" one asked. "Why would we want to know that?"
More than an hour later, a colleague poked his head into my office. He was chewing his lip.
"Are you working on a column about race and firefighters?" he asked. "It came up in a meeting that you have some theory."
No, I said. I have no theory.
But race matters, sort of.
One of the workers in the building, Sarah Nadelhoffer, explained what a Chicago firefighter did after he found her in the smoke.
"He took us out, and one of the guys gave us his air, his oxygen," she said, referring to his air tank. "He held me by the hands and led me out and my partners out."
No reporter asked about the race of the firefighter who saved her. And she didn't mention it, either.
What's wrong with fire victims these days? Don't they follow the racial politics of fighting fire in Chicago?
There has been an onslaught of such stories over the past several years. I've written a few myself. Most involved stupid racial epithets and groups of whites, Latinos and blacks using racial symbolism while playing for an edge in hiring.
Last winter, a minority politician suggested that white firefighters might not save him from a blaze. If you think no politician would ever be dumb enough to hint at such a thing, just ask Ald. Billy Ocasio (26th).
Chicago is a majority minority city now, the department is predominantly white, and there's been a reasonable push to promote and hire more minorities.
Being a firefighter is a prized public job, offering time off to work other jobs in the building trades.
Blacks and Latinos without clout look at the almost all-white firefighters club and naturally see racism. Whites without clout look at massaged test scores and see racial preferences trumping competence.
So how could the victims of Monday night's fire miss all that racial-political stuff? Is it possible they didn't care?
Jim McNally, the president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 said: "I don't think that anybody, when they're being taken down a ladder or when firemen are crawling toward them on their bellies, if anyone has ever been concerned with the ethnicity or the politics of the firefighter," McNally said.
"When your life is on the line, you don't really care about their politics or the color of their skin, or who they voted for for mayor. You care that they're risking their life to save yours."
Strangely, victims aren't interested in racial politics when a fire is raging. Perhaps that's because fire doesn't discriminate when it burns. All the people care about is that the firefighter is there to save them.
"It should all be about finding the best candidates to go into that fire and do the job and save lives," McNally said.