Discrimination is par for the course

Linda Cotton

January 04, 1991|By Linda Cotton

DAN QUAYLE played 18 holes before someone tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out that there were protesters outside the Cyprus Point Golf Course. The vice president was shocked. Protest? Trouble? Whatever could be the matter?

The matter was a simple one, and until last week I suspected the only people who didn't know about it were those who were vacationing in LindaCottonSamoa last summer. That's when civil rights groups protested holding the PGA championship at Shoal Creek Country Club, an all-white club in Birmingham, Ala., which barred blacks as either members or guests. A nationally humiliated Shoal Creek scurried to accept a black businessman as a member. And in August the PGA Tour, an organization of playing professionals, adopted a new anti-discrimination policy declaring that it would not hold any of its events at clubs that have "exclusionary or discriminatory policies or practices."

In the end, all but five of 118 country clubs agreed to change TC membership policies. Cyprus Point, in Pebble Beach, Calif., was one of the holdouts; the price of sticking to its discriminatory membership rules was withdrawal as host of the 1991 AT&T Pebble Beach tournament.

Some people do not believe that Quayle, who is an avid golfer, was, as he claimed, "unaware" of the controversy or the PGA Tour's new policy. In fact, his insensitivity or lack of awareness (take your pick) of issues related to discrimination is in uncanny lock step with the Bush administration, which has shown no serious commitment whatever to leveling the playing field for women or people of color.

It was the president of the United States, after all, who vetoed the first major civil rights bill in decades, and it was his Education Department that postulated an odious policy on minority scholarships which left Bush, like Quayle, pleading ignorance. The vice president's dazed recognition that he was playing at a club that refused to admit black members was hardly a great departure from this non-policy.

Not that it matters. The point is that either the vice president has absolutely no clue about what is going on in America, or he is totally insensitive to the ongoing fight for equal opportunity. Either assessment is pretty grim.

Nonetheless, give the vice president credit for at least recognizing that racism is not politically acceptable. When he packed up his clubs and headed home, Quayle explained that he had cut his golf outing short because playing at an all-white country club might have looked bad. And his press secretary added that, "the vice president is unwilling to leave any impression that he condones any form of discrimination."

Yet when reporters asked Quayle about his honorary membership in the all-male Burning Tree Club, outside Washington, the vice president shot back: "I've played there before, and I'll play there again." Women from Pebble Beach to Baltimore cringed. Burning Tree, whose membership list reads like Who's Who in American politics, not only bars women as members but does not even allow them to play as guests. And like most other exclusionary clubs, a lot more goes on at Burning Tree than a round of golf.

For decades, all-male, all-white clubs of every type have been bastions of economic and political mobility. Even the courts have said that they are the places where the chosen meet, greet and hobnob. And if deals and opportunities are not secured outright, critical contacts certainly are. Yet so committed is Burning Tree to maintaining its old boy network that it chose to give up a huge state tax break rather than allow women through the front door.

That Quayle could see a difference between what's happening at Burning Tree and what's happening at Cypress Point belies the poll-conscious rhetoric about discrimination. Sexism is no different from racism in that it arbitrarily excludes certain people from select social circles, chosen clubs, restaurants because of the arrangement of their genes and chromosomes.

I do not view Quayle's selective indignation as just another of his vacuous antics. It is an insult to women, who are banging their heads against the glass ceilings of every building in every city in America, in part because they are denied access to the social circles that provide upward mobility.

Quayle's playing at a club that bars women is a sanction of invidious discrimination just as clearly as his playing at one that bars blacks. If the vice president wants the American public to believe that he truly "does not condone any form of discrimination," he has no choice but to refuse to play at Burning Tree.

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