About that MLB racial hiring practices report

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Earlier today we posted the AP story regarding the diversity hiring report card which is issued by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida each year. Every year we’ve posted it it results in a bit of a controversy, so I wanted to say a few things about it.

The report itself is based on sheer numbers. They put a grade on it, but that’s subjective. The numbers, however, are the numbers. Major League Baseball only has three managers who are either black or Latino. That’s a fact, not a judgment. The front offices are overwhelmingly white and male, and that’s a fact, not a judgment. You can feel about that however you want to feel, but you can’t argue with the fact that baseball is run, primarily, by white men.

What I’m interested in is the why of all of that. My view of it is that it’s a good example of the difference between institutional racism and what people tend to think racism looks like.

A lot of people assume racism in business/sports/whatever does not exist unless it’s guys wearing hoods or flying Confederate flags. That’s what most people think of anyway, I suspect, when they think of racism. Jim Crow. De jure segregation. Drinking fountains and the like.

Obviously, Major League Baseball does not do that. It once did, decades ago, but not anymore. If you talk to or know decision makers, you know that they are mostly good and decent people who, when asked, will tell you that they believe in equality and opportunity for all. And I believe that they believe that when they say that.

But values and practices are different things. People in positions of authority do what most people do. They hire based on familiarity, relationships and innate, sometimes unconscious preferences and comforts. Guys who went to the same colleges they went to. Who have the same backgrounds they have. Who are able to take low-paying internships like they did because they came from wealthy or privileged backgrounds like they did.

When asked, decision makers will talk about it as hiring people with whom they have a good connection or with whom they communicate well, but it’s, without question, a self-selected group based on some vague notion of comfort and familiarity, consisting of factors that select for a certain sort of people whether it’s obvious or not.

It’s mostly a matter of people relying on networks which are themselves filled with bias, some overt, some harder to discern. “I knew John from Princeton’s statistics program, and he’s a good egg, so I’ll hire him!” But how did both you and John get into that program in the first place? And what selected you two for it? And who was selected out? And, having known John over the years in baseball, who did he know and who else did you know in order to form your network? And how much of that is about merit as opposed to old boyism?

Again, this is not conscious racism in the way we often think of it, but the net effect of all of this is small biases becoming, exponentially, big rifts. A lot of decisions that are individually defensible, but which in the aggregate select for a certain group of people who share a certain group of traits. Men. White men, primarily. And that trickles down to the lower level front office hires and the managerial hires.

So this report comes out each year and it slams MLB. And it results in a discourse in which some people accuse Major League Baseball of being racist and some people deny that vehemently. Both sides are right in a lot of ways.

There are no hood-wearing, Confederate flag-flying racists or a men-only sexists in MLB anymore. Those guys are long dead and gone. But, at the same time, there are biases in place that, however benign they seem, result in a pretty homogenous MLB front office and managerial culture. A lot of white Ivy League dudes with analytical backgrounds who are comfortable with a lot of white former players who get along well with white Ivy League dudes to take the reins of a team in the dugout.

Whatever the case, it’s racism. Institutional racism. Mostly unconscious racism. With racism being a concept which is may more expansive and pernicious than how it’s popularly portrayed and thought of.

Major League Baseball has done a great job of getting rid of the overt racists and sexists over the years. But it still has to grapple with the systems and unconscious biases in place that lead it, still, in 2017, to having homogenous front offices and dugouts. That, rather than the accusations and the defensiveness which often ensue, is the proper takeaway from this annual report.