Keith Strudler: Members Only
If you are of a certain age, or have parents of that vintage that enjoy telling stories, you are familiar with the incendiary and offensive expression, “No Jews, No Blacks.” It was a common refrain for certain beach clubs, restaurants, and country clubs of our American past, found commonly in wealthy enclaves where a white religious majority could exclude those deemed as others. In some regard, this exclusion could explain part of the political cohesion of the Jewish and African-American communities throughout American history. Even if they have often suffered disproportionately, many of even America’s most integrated Jews recognize a common history of discrimination.
Then again, perhaps those memories are fading, at least in regard to the latest membership crisis at Maryland’s Woodmont Golf Club. Woodmont membership is primarily Jewish, and they take considerable pride in their history as an inclusive space that admitted Jews when other places didn’t. It’s kind of the Brandeis of golf clubs. So, it would stand to reason that membership would eagerly open their doors to now former President Obama, who indicated that he’d like to join and hone his game after stepping down from office. Certainly, what could be more prestigious for a golf club, whose currency is just that, than having a former US president roaming the links? And a not for nothing, but enrolling the first African-American president would only affirm Woodmont’s inclusive self-perception, such that anyplace with an $80,000 initiation fee could ever fancy themselves inclusive.
Many of Woodmont’s members didn’t see it that way. In fact, several opposed inviting Obama to join, based on his particular views and policies towards Israel. In fact, it seemed the club initially opposed his candidacy, although he never did formally apply. It got heated enough that one member, Maryland Town of Somerset mayor Jeffrey Slavin, decided to quit. He said that, quoting from his resignation letter, he “can no longer belong to a community where intolerance is accepted, and,” he finishes, “where the nation’s first black president is disrespected.” This note is in stark contrast to those from other members, who consider his membership inconceivable, unacceptable, and the stimulus for a mass exodus from the club. So, on a bright note, if you’ve been waiting to finally get accepted to Woodmont Country Club, there may now be plenty of room.
It’s not lost on anyone the irony, if that’s the correct term, of a golf club that was largely created to allow access to a marginalized minority will now deny access to a member of another minority, even if that’s not the club’s intention. Woodmont probably figured that out, which is why they publicly offered Obama membership – and not for nothing, but without the fee to join. It’s like the free gym offers, only the monthlies are a bit higher. But we shouldn’t ignore the importance of golf as an access point to power and privilege.
Golf as an institution is far more than simply a sport, just like a Ferrari is far more than an automobile. Golf brings with it, particularly in the manicured clubs that oversee its governance, access to those with wealth and prominence. Think of a golf club as something like an eating club at Princeton. You don’t just eat there. You create relationships, form alliances, and, and this is important, you do this while also keeping other people out. They’re kept out because of socioeconomics, because of history, and, like in this case, because members deem it so. So when charters used to mandate no Blacks and no Jews, that didn’t just mean they couldn’t play golf. It also meant they couldn’t make deals, they couldn’t get to know the local judge, they couldn’t incidentally run into a prestigious alumni from an Ivy League school that might write a letter for their kids. Basically, they couldn’t climb the same well-known if but ethically questionable ladder of America’s privileged elite. Look, it should be of no surprise that our new president has built or branded more than a few of these exclusive sports enclaves himself. Nor is it a surprise that he’s unlikely to give membership to the forgotten American poor he claims to care so much about.
So this is why Woodmont made a huge mistake in questioning the membership of former president Obama. Because it reminded everyone that even if you’re the President, they can still keep you out.
Now, Obama’s acceptance doesn’t do a whole lot to change the fact that golf is still the province of the wealthy and powerful, even if that populace is of a more diverse lot than generations past. Golf is still a place where rich folks can make sure their less affluent peers don’t tread. Where they can have a wall without a wall. This membership isn’t going to change all that, even if those offensive signs are long gone.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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