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Reality Problems

Published on April 9, 2012 by

I may be dim, but Augusta National Golf Club has a tradition of not liking people unless they’re white Protestant men, doesn’t it? It’s not readily evident on their web site — there’s no warning label or description of their ideal friends, let alone members — but that’s not how most of the “isms” in our culture are revealed and enforced. They’re structural, which means there’s often no written policy or overt action that does the discriminating, but rather its just part of the club, institution, or club’s genetics. Augusta had only white Protestant male member for most of its existence because, well, its white Protestant male members tended to prefer associating with fellow white Protestant males. This is why so much discrimination is apparently invisible to so many people, especially to those who don’t ever seem to experience it (i.e. white Protestant men).

Though I have no problem with people or organizations having the right to determine who they want to be with or like. I want and have that right, and so do you. The problems arise when our rights deny rights to others…not of association, but of opportunity. Who cares about limiting access to golf greens or not inviting people to debutant parties? Well, it matters when those activities are so much a part of the structural way people succeed in society that being kept away means people are locked out from those potential successes. Making the case on the basis of glib political-correctness, as if a multi-cultural/gender/political/nationalistic hodgepodge is the objective best basis upon which to build any organization for any purpose, really misses the point. “Isms” in our society matter when the actual participation matters, not the appearances of it.

That’s not to say that appearances don’t matter, at least in the marketing world. That’s why Augusta set aside its whites-only policy in 1990s; tournament sponsoring car companies had put pressure on the Shoal Creek Club for its restrictive membership practices, since car companies sell cars to customers other than white Protestant men. The argument wasn’t economic empowerment as much as avoiding the appearance of supporting a politically-incorrect behavior. Talk about half-assed. I guarantee those sponsors never looked that closely at the practices of other recipients of their largesse or, put the other way, I bet anybody who gets sponsorship dollars does something that wouldn’t look too good in the full light of day. Does anybody think that Augusta really changed its policy — its members all decided they wanted to behave differently — as much as it created a PC overlay to avoid the appearance of that behavior?

So are appearances surprising as much as simply expressions of the way things really are?

Anyway, now to the latest row: IBM is a big sponsor of this year’s PGA Tournament, which is being played at Augusta and, low and behold, the club doesn’t allow women members and the CEO of IBM is a woman! I bet there are even places at the club to which she might not even be allowed access, which might make her getting her share of shrimp cocktail at one of the lavish corporate entertainment spreads somewhat questionable.

The transitive quality of PC-ness says that if IBM supports August, and Augusta “disrespects” women, then IBM disrespects women, which would mean bad PR. That’s exactly what has happened, just like it did in 1990 over race. And so goes with the unsolicited public relations advice being, er, teed-up on the subject. Augusta should extend some honorary club membership to the IBM CEO. The club should issue a statement about its policies and openness to spectators of all races, creeds, and colors.

I’d like to suggest something different. Say nothing.

Why? Because everyone knows the score. The “isms” at Augusta are no secret, and IBM knew full well what it was doing when it kicked in the cash to the tournament. There’s nothing anybody could say that would change those facts unless the organizations first changed the facts, which they aren’t likely to do.

Restrictive golf clubs aren’t the domains of social access and success they once were, and there are enough well-attended golf clubs with open membership policies to make access somewhat if not very democratic (and push places like Augusta to the edges of social spaces, where it belongs). Our country has made great progress toward becoming the meritocracy it always promised it would be, and it’s important that we continue to make the structural qualities of opportunity open to all. Membership at Augusta doesn’t even come close to getting on that list.

Further, the same social web that percolates up info to the world also helps ensure the info stays relevant for about a nanosecond. Remember that disgruntled Goldman Sachs’ letter in the New York Times a few weeks ago? It was going to spark a firestorm of problems for Goldman, perhaps even spell the beginning of the end for the firm. Or not. Nobody even remembers it anymore.

Augusta lives by various ‘isms’ as is its right, and it can keep operating like that until people stop joining and supporting it. IBM (or any corporate sponsor) can and should be allowed to fund whatever it wants, since after all, white Protestant men buy cars, too. As for that IBM CEO, she got to be head of the company without playing golf at Augusta (she probably wouldn’t want to be a member anyway). That doesn’t make the club’s policies right, but it doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

And they’re certainly no longer relevant.


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