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What’s behind Republican anger at the NFL? Shifting views on race

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks flanked by GOP Sens. Ron Johnson, left, and Roger Marshall
Sen. Ted Cruz is flanked by GOP Sens. Ron Johnson, left, and Roger Marshall at the Capitol. Cruz has said President Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court is “offensive.”
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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Our Los Angeles Times/SurveyMonkey Super Bowl poll caught attention this week for finding that 45% of Republicans say they believe the NFL is doing “too much” to “show respect for its Black players.”

The poll also found that 52% of Republicans say they disapprove of the football league’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview Black candidates and other people of color for head coaching positions and other executive jobs.

In both cases, the views of Republicans differ sharply from those of Democrats or independents.

The results surprised some people, in part because the Republican reaction seems out of proportion to the realities of the NFL.

Why would people object to actions described as showing respect or to the Rooney Rule, which, for all the praise it has received from business leaders over the years, has been notable for its ineffectiveness?

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Deeply felt denial about discrimination

The answer lies in an ideological shift among Republicans: Belief that discrimination against Black Americans and other people of color is a thing of the past and that whites are now the ones who face unfair treatment has increasingly become a core GOP view.

That strain of thought has run through parts of the Republican coalition for decades — and gathered strength after Democrats embraced civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the GOP began to pick up support among whites in the South.

In 1990, for example, North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms infamously ran a 30-second campaign ad showing a pair of white hands crumpling up a rejection letter as an announcer intoned “you needed that job ... but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”

At the time, Helms was widely seen as an outlier among Republicans. In 2001, two years before Helms’ retirement, the Washington Post’s political columnist David Broder declared the senator “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.”

For decades, Republican leaders insisted their party was moving away from his style of race-based politics.

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Alas, both they and Broder underestimated the staying power of racism.

The rise of former President Trump, with his open appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment and white nationalism, made that clear.

“It’s not so much that Trump made people more resentful,” UC Irvine political scientist Michael Tesler said in an email. “But he did make them more impactful in politics.”

The belief that whites face discrimination was “a potent predictor of support for Trump in the 2016 primaries,” noted Tesler, who wrote a book on that campaign with political scientists Lynn Vavreck of UCLA and John Sides of Vanderbilt University. That viewpoint “also predicted general election votes in 2016 and 2020.”

“With the party’s base increasingly animated by racial grievances,” he added, “these explicit appeals to white identity politics are increasingly characterizing GOP messaging in the post-Trump era.”

Or, as political analyst Ron Brownstein wrote: “The belief that whites are the real victims of bias is absolute bedrock for Trump’s GOP coalition.”

Whenever this topic comes up, Republicans are quick to insist that they’re not racists: They just oppose special treatment for anyone on the basis of a group, they say, or they believe that Democrats exploit racial identity as a way to keep voter support.

Regardless of how one defines racism, however, the evidence that many Republicans believe whites, not Black Americans, to be the prime victims of discrimination comes from many sources. One is the extensive polling done by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center as part of its long-running project to sort out how Americans group themselves by ideology, what Pew calls its political typologies.

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As part of that project, Pew asked: “How much more, if anything, needs to be done to ensure equal rights for all Americans regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds?”

Half of Americans said “a lot” more needs to be done. Among Democratic groups, more than 75% said so. But among the groups that form the Republican coalition — Pew’s system divides the GOP into four types — that share ranged from 4% to 22%.

Among the people Pew labeled “Faith and Flag” conservatives — a core group on the Republican right — 56% said that “nothing at all” remains to be done.

Those most conservative voters were also the most likely to say that white people in the U.S. face discrimination — with 37% of them saying whites face “a lot” of discrimination and another 39% saying they face “some.” Majorities across the GOP coalition said whites face at least some discrimination.

The party division could not be starker: Among Democrats, fewer than 4% said white people face a lot of discrimination; fewer than 1 in 5 say they face some.

“Perhaps no issue area highlights the deep divide between the partisan coalitions” more than “attitudes about race and racial justice,” Pew’s analysts wrote in their typology report.

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As Tesler noted, those attitudes affect a wide range of public issues. For the most recent examples, see the Republican criticisms of President Biden for pledging to nominate a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

“That’s offensive,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on his weekly podcast.

“Black women are, what, 6% of the U.S. population? He’s saying to 94% of Americans: ‘I don’t give a damn about you. You are ineligible,’” Cruz said, in language that bore more than a passing resemblance to Helms’ famous ad.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was quick to note that Cruz had not criticized Trump when he promised to nominate a woman after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In 1981, President Reagan fulfilled a promise to name the first woman to the court.

In both of those cases, the Republican presidents nominated white women: Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Sandra Day O’Connor.

Of course, political opportunism is at play. Biden’s pledge to name the first Black woman justice in the court’s 232-year history backed up a promise to a key Democratic constituency. Cruz and other Republicans want to make him pay a price for redeeming that pledge.

What’s noteworthy is not that they’re criticizing him, but that they believe they can gain political mileage by accusing him of giving something — in this case a court nomination — to a Black person.

The hardening of Republican attitudes toward race goes beyond the fight over the court. As Biden has repeatedly said, Republicans in both the House and Senate voted as recently as 2006 to renew and expand the Voting Rights Act, one of the key legislative accomplishments of the civil rights era. When President George W. Bush signed the expansion into law that year, his White House trumpeted the bill as a major achievement.

Today, only one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has been willing to publicly support renewing the law, which has been hollowed out by a series of Supreme Court rulings.

All that comes against a backdrop of continued huge gaps between Black and white Americans on income, wealth, education, life expectancy and other measurements.

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Which brings us back to the NFL.

Race has been very much an issue in the league this month because of a lawsuit brought by Brian Flores, the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, accusing the league and three teams of racial discrimination.

Roughly 70% of the NFL’s players are Black, and the league currently has just one Black head coach, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a second, Lovie Smith, recently announced by the Houston Texans. That’s one fewer than the league had when the Rooney Rule took effect in 2003.

“OK, we’re not having this success we want with head coaches,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell conceded Wednesday at his annual pre-Super Bowl state-of-the-league session. The issue for the league, he said, is “how do we evolve that rule, or do we have to have a new rule? Do we need to figure out some other way of being able to achieve that outcome?”

It’s an odd moment for nearly half of Republicans to say that professional football — or the U.S. as a whole — is doing “too much.”

Super Bowl poll

If you missed our pre-Super Bowl poll with SurveyMonkey, here’s your chance to catch up. There’s a bunch of interesting stuff:

The Rams have firmly reestablished themselves as L.A.’s favorites. After years of having no football team in Los Angeles, there were a lot of questions about whether fans would support the team. They do, Brady McCollough wrote.

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The idea of hosting major sports events like the Super Bowl and the 2028 Olympics enjoys broad support among residents of the region. At the same time, residents are skeptical about claims that the events will bring significant economic benefits to local communities, Connor Sheets and Andrew Campa reported.

Californians are more likely than people elsewhere in the country to say the pandemic has affected how they’ll watch the game — often with fewer people than normal. Some fear the massive event could spark a new COVID-19 outbreak and set back the region’s progress against the pandemic, Hayley Smith reported.

And here’s a summary of how the poll was conducted.

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The latest from the campaign trail

A deep split between the left and center of the Democratic Party in Nevada is endangering the party’s chances in a key state, Mark Barabak wrote. After insurgents on the left won control of the party’s official machinery, elected officials, including Gov. Steve Sisolak and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, backed a rival organization. The infighting could hurt Democrats in the midterm elections.

The latest from Washington

After years of discussion, the Senate on Thursday approved legislation to ban companies from forcing employers and customers into arbitration to resolve sexual harassment and assault claims. As Erin Logan reported, the bill, which now goes to Biden for his signature, marks a victory for advocates who have long said that arbitration rules enable powerful men to evade accountability.

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Democratic governors are moving to ease indoor mask mandates, skipping ahead of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Biden administration, which continues to urge Americans to wear masks indoors regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, Anumita Kaur and Logan reported.

Biden said in an interview that his aides have done a “deep dive” on four candidates for the Supreme Court and that he plans to start meeting with potential nominees “soon,” Nolan McCaskill reported.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrived in Melbourne, Australia, on Wednesday for the first stop on a regional tour designed to reassert U.S. influence in the Indo-Pacific against China and to reassure allies worried that their issues are being given less priority in Washington, Tracy Wilkinson wrote. But the Russia-Ukraine standoff has overshadowed the talks about China.

Federal prosecutors are revising a plea deal for a Georgia man present at the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, citing new information that online sleuths attribute to video recently released by the Los Angeles Times, Sarah Wire reported.

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The latest from California

A series of six focus groups with Los Angeles residents to discuss homelessness left pollsters stunned by the depth and unanimity of voter frustration, Ben Oreskes and Doug Smith reported. Angelenos, the pollsters concluded, are angry over the condition of the streets, disturbed by the human suffering taking place and frustrated with the inability of government to do anything about it.

Rick Caruso, the billionaire developer, could jump into the race for mayor as early as Friday. Caruso notified the city clerk’s office that he plans to deliver papers on Friday afternoon, Oreskes reported. Because of the pandemic, the clerk’s office is closed to the public, so prospective candidates have had to schedule appointments to sign documents and submit the required paperwork for candidacy.

The recent decision by Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, to move the company’s headquarters to Austin, Texas, signals potential problems on the horizon of California’s economic future, Don Lee wrote. Silicon Valley isn’t disappearing, but it no longer has as much of a monopoly on the tech industry.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation Wednesday to reinstate supplemental sick leave benefits for most California workers, providing up to two weeks of paid time off for COVID-19-related illnesses and absences, Taryn Luna reported.

Los Angeles County could relax its outdoor masking rules as early as Wednesday, as COVID-19 cases in the county continue to drop. As Ron Lin and Luke Money reported, health officials will lift face covering requirements at outdoor “mega events” and outdoor spaces at K-12 schools and child care settings once the county has gone seven days with fewer than 2,500 coronavirus-positive hospital patients.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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