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One of the most troubling realities of American life can be summed up in a single sentence: Systems and structures designed by racists for racist reasons are often maintained by nonracists for nonracist reasons. This reality applies both to formal legal rules and to informal cultural norms.
To help you understand, I’ll start with a relatively simple example. Residential segregation used to be enforced and maintained by explicit, intentionally racist operation of law. For generations, neighborhoods were defined according to racial composition, and explicit legal regulations and even deed covenants kept neighborhoods whites-only.
The result of residential segregation (combined with school segregation, discriminatory employment rules, and all the toxic elements of legalized bigotry) is that one American community enjoyed less opportunity. Other American communities enjoyed more, and their incomes, schools, businesses, and homes reflected that reality.
So even if you eliminate all explicit, legalized racism from the books, you’re left with a serious problem. People who send their kids to nice schools or who live in nice homes do not want to risk the future prospects of the kids they love or the value of their most important investments.
Rezone schools? No. Why should we risk changing educational environments when my kids thrive? Permit multifamily housing nearby (which would allow lower-income individuals to move to high-income neighborhoods)? No. The increased traffic and changing character of the community might impact the value of my home and the ease of my life.
Individuals don’t have to be racist to believe these things. In fact, they can hate racism and fly a Black Lives Matter flag yet still maintain the NIMBYism that plagues much of modern American life. The justification is obvious and sincere. After all, how is it racist to protect your investments? How is it racist to send your kids to the best schools?
And don’t think for a moment that this mindset is confined to the conservative South. As a viral New York Times video detailed last year, some of America’s most progressive communities have been among the most exclusive and restrictive when it comes to new developments that could benefit working-class families.
But if you’re a person trying to leave a historically marginalized neighborhood, and the artificially maintained high costs of the better places serve as a barrier to entry and opportunity, the lack of explicit racism is cold comfort when the new place is still well beyond your reach.
That’s the law. But how does this process work culturally? For a prime example, I’d direct your attention to the bombshell lawsuit that former Miami Dolphins football coach Brian Flores filed against the NFL and the Dolphins on Monday.
It’s a long complaint packed with allegations, but broadly speaking, it contains two kinds of claims. First, that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross tried to induce and/or force Flores to violate the rules of the league. In his most explosive allegation, Flores says that Ross offered him $100,000 per loss if he “tanked”—intentionally lost to help the Dolphins’ position in the draft.
As troubling as those claims are, they’re not the heart of the suit. The heart of the suit is an allegation that NFL teams systematically discriminate against Black applicants for coaching and front-office positions. Moreover, it says that the NFL’s efforts to increase diversity, namely through the so-called Rooney Rule—which requires teams to interview at least one Black applicant for open general-manager, head-coach, and senior-assistant-coach positions—is little more than a cynical sham.
The lawsuit contains statistical and anecdotal evidence. It also tells a story. The statistical evidence demonstrates extraordinary underrepresentation of Black coaches and executives. While 70 percent of NFL players are Black, only one out of 32 teams employs a Black head coach; six out of 32 teams employ a Black general manager.
The anecdotal evidence of a sham process is deeply embarrassing to the NFL. The headline-making paragraphs of the complaint contain screenshots of text messages from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick purportedly congratulating Flores for securing the New York Giants coaching job.
There were two problems with these messages. First, Belichick was mistakenly texting the wrong Brian. He thought he was talking to Brian Daboll, the white candidate who actually landed the position. Second, he messaged Flores three days before Flores was scheduled to interview for that same position. The interview seemed to be a formality, a box-checking exercise before the team announced the decision it had apparently already made.
The complaint also contains claims that a 2019 Flores interview with the Denver Broncos was another transparent sham. Broncos general manager John Elway and President and CEO Joe Ellis allegedly arrived an hour late. Even worse, Flores claims, “they looked completely disheveled, and it was obvious that they had [been] drinking heavily the night before.”
Moreover, “it was clear from the substance of the interview that Mr. Flores was interviewed only because of the Rooney Rule, and that the Broncos never had any intention to consider him as a legitimate candidate for the job.”
The story the complaint tells is of a league that used to be riddled with outright, explicit racism. Racist people kept Black players and then Black coaches out of the league for racist reasons. The explicit racism faded, but its consequences have not. Why?
It is entirely possible that the lawsuit will uncover evidence that some of that racism didn’t go away, but instead went underground. Early in my career I worked on a class-action nondiscrimination case and was simply stunned at what I saw in company documents after it was required to disclose internal communications.
But it’s also probable that there’s something else at play. Something even harder to combat than explicit racial discrimination—a culture that unintentionally but still systematically prevents Black coaches from advancing. I’m talking about an old-fashioned “good ol’ boy” network.
When you hear that phrase, it might call to mind the lyrics to an old television show’s theme song. The protagonists of The Dukes of Hazzard were “just two good ol’ boys” who were “never meanin’ no harm.” The phrase conjures up the image of old friends, drinking beer out of the back of pickup trucks and just, well, helping each other out.
But the phrase can mean something else. It can refer to the networks and relationships that spring naturally from consistent, close proximity. When those networks and relationships are exclusively or almost exclusively white for generations, then patterns are established.
The hallmark of “good ol’ boy” culture is some version of what I just explained above. There might not be beer. Premium bourbon works just as well. There might not be pickup trucks. The valet has the Maserati at the ready. But still, friends help each other out. They share connections. They help each other’s families. They interact easily and freely. They vouch for each other. They forgive mistakes. You know, the way friends do.
Want evidence of a “good ol’ boy” network? Look at the staggering NFL nepotism stats. As Kalyn Kahler wrote last month in Defector, “Overall, the league averages 3.4 coaches per team who are related to a current or former NFL coach, and the percentage of coaches at the supervisory levels—the ones with hiring power—is even higher. Eleven of 32 head coaches are related to a current or former NFL coach. There are 24 coordinators who are related to current or former coaches, almost a full quarter of them.”
Here’s the problem: While bad laws can be reformed by legal means, it’s more difficult to reform bad cultures through force of law. Nondiscrimination laws are a hammer designed to nail down explicit manifestations of discrimination, and even powerful evidence of underrepresentation is not always enough to establish a legal claim. Thus, while the hammers are often indispensable to justice and fairness, they’re not always sufficient. Strip away all the legal barriers for entry, and somebody still has to look across the desk at an applicant and say, “You’re my guy.”
That’s why a commitment to fairness can’t be passive. A leader of pure heart can’t simply say to himself or herself, “I’m not doing anything wrong.” There has to be a commitment to do something right. What am I doing to expand my circle? What am I doing to find talent, to elevate the talented, and support them with the same fervor that I support my friend (or the friend of my friend)?
America’s elite spaces are small spaces. For a very long time they were intentionally white (and intentionally male). Now all too many are still passively white, well past the time when the rising stars of the post-civil-rights world have had a chance to earn their places at the table. Can anyone say there isn’t enough Black football leadership and expertise to change the dreadful ratios outlined in the complaint?
And no, I don’t believe in racial discrimination to reverse racial discrimination. The language of civil-rights laws is clear. They flatly prohibit racial discrimination. And the cultural effect of explicit racial discrimination is also clear—it destabilizes and alienates. But one doesn’t have to discriminate against a single white person to change the culture of the NFL (or any number of elite American workplaces). The league can decide to be aggressively fair. It can expand its circle, and any circle that’s fairly expanded will give Black coaches the chances they so richly deserve.