Exclusion a Cousin of Discrimination

COMMENT

April 10, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

They packed the House Economic Matters Committee room, an army of white, middle-aged-to-elderly men and women wearing Moose and Elk insignia on their lapels and good intentions on their sleeves.

They came from across Maryland to protest (successfully, it turned out) a bill that would take away their clubs' liquor licenses because their national bylaws bar women from being members. They came to talk about all the good and charitable deeds they do, and how, without a liquor license, they wouldn't be able to raise enough money to keep doing them. And they came to slay the notion that the word "discrimination" applies to them.

"The word discrimination really gets me going," Elks spokesman Frank J. Webber said.

The Elks' youth sports programs and scholarships, their veterans' services and community charities are offered to all, Mr. Webber said, regardless of sex or race. The Ladies of the Elk can do everything the men do, except become regular Elks. And, although the ladies say they like it that way, local Elks members insist they would not mind admitting women if the national organization would say they could.

No, Mr. Webber said, there is no discrimination here, and there isn't -- not in the sense of malicious prejudice against a certain group of people.

But there is exclusion, which is why the General Assembly should have approved that liquor license bill, instead of killing it last week.

The issue, as far as this bill is concerned, is not whether the Elks or the Moose perform valuable services or, as private lodges, have the right to associate with whom they wish. The issue is whether a government that stands for equal treatment for all should offer privileges such as liquor license to groups that exclude.

Toleration cannot be legislated. But there is nothing wrong with using the law to prod social change.

This bill would not necessarily have forced groups to open their doors -- they could change their bylaws and still exclude in practice -- but it seems fairly obvious that groups that would try to elude such a law that way would leave themselves open to lawsuits. The liquor license bill might not have been a perfect means of ending exclusion, but it certainly would have steered private groups toward that direction.

Why did the bill (which passed the Senate but stalled in a House committee) fail? Part of the reason was that many people, including those who loathe overt discrimination and believe the government should not sanction limited-membership organizations, couldn't get past the question of whether all types of exclusion are discriminatory or equally bad.

Is there anything wrong, for example, with the Sons of Italy requiring that members be Italian? Or the Daughters of the American Revolution limiting membership to those with revolutionary ancestors? Or the Linthicum Women's Club consisting solely of women?

In such cases, the organization's very reason for being hinges on a certain degree of exclusivity. Few reasonable people would argue that keeping someone with absolutely no connection to Italy out of a group designed to promote Italian heritage is discriminatory.

Exclusion occurs every day in our society and is not always viewed in a negative light. In the newspaper industry groups for women and black journalists are commonplace.

As a result of the multi-cultural movement and its focus on ethnic heritage, an increasing number of groups actually desire separation. On college campuses, blacks, Jews and others are keeping to themselves, maintaining separate housing and associating mainly with each other. Male bonding retreats have become trendy, possibly because men feel more left out than women realize from female-dominated domestic events like weddings and childbirth. There is something to be said for forging bonds with others who share common backgrounds and experiences.

Personally, however, I think we would be better off if we stopped retreating so much into comforting mini-worlds populated by others just like us. Clubs specifically for men and women, Poles and Italians, war veterans and minorities serve a purpose, and they might not be discriminatory per se. But they don't foster a broader, more understanding view of the world, either.

Last week, the Elks left the impression that they are good, well-meaning people. They also left the impression that they do not at all understand a large and important segment of the community: African-Americans. When Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden noted that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have approved of legislation that opens doors to women, they barely suppressed their sighs and grumbles, as if to say, "There he goes again, dragging race into it."

Elks bylaws do not prohibit black members, yet such members are few. When Mr. Snowden asked why, the answer was, "They haven't asked." But why? Because blacks really prefer their own chapters? Or because the Elks haven't sought them out and they don't feel welcome? The Elks seemed a bit too willing to take the lack of minority applicants at anything more than face value.

This may not qualify as discrimination. But it is closer to that dangerous word than we ought to expect of organizations that aspire to make our communities better, kinder places.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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