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Memo to My Friends: It's Time for Change at Those Exclusionary Clubs

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As sure as the azaleas bloom every spring in Georgia, the Masters golf tournament reminds us of the fact that the Augusta National Golf Club still discriminates against women. This year the issue is focused on the fact that tournament sponsor IBM is now headed by a female chief executive officer Virginia Rometty, and historically the club has invited the company's head to join. As members squirm at questions posed by reporters, some of us who frequent the world's poshest private enclaves are rather delighted to see that the prejudice practiced at Augusta National is drawing attention anew.

Although hardly equal to the widespread bigotry of the pre-civil rights era, exclusionary rules enforced at fancy private clubs remain a shameful scandal in this country. This is especially true when you consider that so many of the people who belong to these organizations are part of America's leadership class. The most recently-publicized membership list showed top executives from American Express, General Electric and Motorola all belong to Augusta National. The rolls also include current and former leaders from both major political parties. I know that many of these people are uncomfortable with the rules at the club, and I cannot understand why they let them stand.

Sadly, the members of the club in Augusta are not alone in neglecting their consciences. About two dozen exclusive golf clubs still bar women. One of these clubs, Burning Tree of Bethesda, Maryland, counts Speaker of the House John Boehner as a regular. (To his credit, President Obama refuses to play the course.) And golf clubs aren't the only offenders. Discriminatory practices can be found at a few tennis clubs and at social clubs around the country, where women, blacks and Jews are not welcomed. Recently I learned that one of these bastions of soft bigotry sits right next door to my home in Palm Beach.

The maintenance crew at the Bath and Tennis Club must occasionally use my property, and hence requires my permission, to access one side of a club building. I have never denied them, but I confess I considered it after a recent conversation with a friend here in Palm Beach. She told me that she and her five-year-old daughter were invited to the club for lunch and a play date. The host's five-year-old child told her little friend at school that Jewish people like her could not normally go to the Bath and Tennis Club, but that her mommy was going to "sneak them in."

Officially, the club next door does not advertise a "no Jews" policy, but when I asked around I found that no one here could name a Jewish person who was a member. I didn't know of this problem until I heard of the scheme to sneak my friend and her daughter inside. Indeed I had actually imagined my young sons might one day walk down the beach to play with the children of club members or take lessons on one of the eight tennis courts the club maintains. As an avid tennis player I looked forward to the day when they might actually beat me with shots they developed with the help of the Bath and Tennis Club pros. Now, instead, I'll have to teach them to ignore the sounds of kids at play next door because the grown-ups who run the place are small-minded or weak-willed.

Exclusion hurts, no matter where or when it happens or who experiences it. It isolates us from each other, and the fear that comes with isolation is a major factor in the alienation and hatred that smolders in our society until something occurs that sets-off an explosion. Here in Florida we have witnessed more than a month of growing suspicion and outrage over the racially-tinged shooting death of a teenager named Trayvon Martin. While the precise details of the killing remain unclear, the massive protests over the police's handling of the case reveal that we still have trouble trusting and understanding each other. More recently, in Toulouse, France, the murder of three children and a teacher at a Jewish school reminded us that violent anti-Semitism is a real and present danger.

Of course no one should conflate exclusionary practices at private clubs and tragedies that include the loss of human life. But I will say that every act of exclusion affects the overall mood of our social relationships and small prejudices that go unchallenged have a corrosive effect on our values. Indeed, children learn from what they see and hear, and this is how bigotry is passed from generation to generation.

Fortunately, every person who belongs to a club or organization that discriminates on the basis of race, gender, or religion possesses the power to make a meaningful change. The rules at Augusta National, Burning Tree, the Bath and Tennis Club and all the others are set by the members. I know many of these people, and I believe that as individuals they want to do the right thing. I want to do the right thing too, which is why I'm calling on them to change things immediately. Come out of your comfort zones, my friends, and be free of your shameful past. We'll all be better for it.