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Why the photo of Jerry Jones at Little Rock can't be ignored

The Washington Post unearthed a photo of the Dallas Cowboys owner from his teenage years that has ignited discussions about his hiring practices.


The Washington Post published a photo last week of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones standing with a racist mob when he was a teenager in Arkansas in 1957. 

As the Post reported

On the first day of classes at North Little Rock High, a crew-cut sophomore named Jerral Wayne Jones found his spot among a phalanx of White boys who stood at the front entrance and blocked the path of six Black students attempting to desegregate the school.

Jones told the Post he only showed up that day to observe what was going on (he made the same claim to ESPN), but the Post explains why that seems implausible:

[The] photographs indicate Jones had to scurry around the North Little Rock Six to reach the top of the stairs before the Black students completed their walk up to the schoolhouse door. And while Jones offered a common explanation of the confrontation — that it was the work of older white supremacists — most of those surrounding the six young Black men were teenagers.

These revelations are offered as evidence of Jones’ history with racism in an article largely focused on his failure to hire a Black head coach throughout his decadeslong tenure as the Cowboys’ owner. 

In response to the photo, many NFL fans accused Jones, the head of “America’s team,” of engaging in America’s most despicable pastime: racist discrimination. 

Others have claimed that invoking Jones’ past to bring up his present behavior is immoral. The loudest of that group is Stephen A. Smith, an ESPN commentator who has bragged about the ritzy perks he's received from Jones

“You’re making an attempt to eradicate him, what he stands for and all that he has done,” Smith claimed.

Of course, accountability for racism — no matter when it occurred — is not oppression. Nonetheless, Smith wanted to make it widely known he’s standing by his man. 

This was an unsurprisingly shameful take coming from the same man who once suggested in a televised rant that women victims of domestic violence sometimes provoke such abuse. (He later apologized for his comments.)

Although Smith may be a lost cause, this is a teachable moment for others more susceptible to positive change. Because, as the old retort goes: “The devil doesn’t need an advocate.”

Jones will never fully outrun this photo. And he shouldn’t be allowed to. True history is a powerful weapon to induce change. The threat of being enshrined in the public’s memory as a terror to others can incentivize people with a modicum of morality to make amends and offer reparations. 

Jones doesn’t appear to have done either. 

No matter when the photo was taken, or where Jones was standing when it was taken, it’s naive to suggest it serves no purpose in the context of Jones’ long-criticized hiring practices

Think of it like this: Every historical snapshot of white bigots denigrating Black people has a foreground and a background. In the foreground, we often see the most vicious racists in the group, eager to put their names and faces to their behavior. In the background, we often see people who are complicit: They may be less willing to engage in the racist acts themselves, but they're apparently happy to stand idly by as bigots do dirty deeds on their behalf. 

At best, and assuming you believe his explanation, Jones appears to be in the latter group: weak people who accept America’s racist social hierarchy. And that character flaw is useful to know when considering Jones’ failure to hire a Black head coach. 

That's the point of the Post article.

By condemning the report, Smith and others caping for Jones apparently want to deprive those pushing for racial justice of their most effective tools to bring about change: truth and shame. 

In that regard, they’re no different from the right-wing Republicans actively trying to whitewash history books and school curricula, all in the name of coddling white people and defending them from accountability.