WHILE MANY ARE uncomfortable having the conversation, it’s legitimate to ask whether someone vying for lieutenant governor — the person one unfortunate mishap away from becoming governor — should belong to an all-white club.
For that matter, it’s fair to ask that about anyone who asks voters to elect them to a leadership position in our government, whether on the federal, state or local level. When someone seeks public approval to serve as an elected leader who will look out for the welfare of all people when making policy, guiding service delivery and shaping communities’ quality of life, they willingly expose themselves, their beliefs and even those relationships — and club memberships — they cherish to public scrutiny.
So, why are some people put off by the fact that Bakari Sellers, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, asked Henry McMaster, his opponent in November, to resign his membership at the Forest Lake Country Club, which has a history of having only white members?
Mr. Sellers wasn’t out to paint Mr. McMaster as a racist; instead he made the request in asking his opponent to join him in helping move South Carolina beyond its past, which includes much racial strife. “As we stand on the stage for the next two months, I want people to watch two men who believe in tomorrow and who want to heal South Carolina and move us forward,” Mr. Sellers said.
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We all know that South Carolina, with a population that is roughly one-third black, has significant racial baggage. And despite the strides that have been made over the years, race colors many issues that pass through our State House. Those who lead — and no one is forced to run for public office — should avoid even the appearance of divisiveness and seek to pull people together.
The McMaster campaign has said the candidate does not intend to give up the membership he had held for more than 30 years. Jeff Taillon, Mr. McMaster’s campaign manager, said the club “has no policies of racial discrimination, and he would not be a member if it did.”
But, as has long been the case, members and management at the club won’t say if it has any black members. Mr. Sellers said the club’s membership remains all white but didn’t say how he knows that.
As a lifelong Columbian, what surprises me most about all this is that the Forest Lake club continues to trot out the tired refrain that it doesn’t disclose anything about its membership, including whether it has any black members.
Why is it that in 2014 we still have to wonder whether a club whose membership includes some of our community’s most influential business and political figures is open to all people? Maybe the club has changed its ways; if it has, it should say so.
Is it really that hard to tell whether you have any black members?
It’s particularly disappointing that elected officials who are members at Forest Lake declare they don’t know whether it has black members. They should know. And if they don’t know, they should find out.
At least two Republican Richland County legislators — state Sen. John Courson and Rep. Kirkman Finlay — are members of the club. Both said they did not know if the club has added any African-American members.
“I don’t know who’s a member or not,” Mr. Finlay recently told The State.
Does he care?
I’m sorry. It’s baffling to me that anyone would join a club — let alone be a member for decades — and know nothing about his fellow members. While the prestige, history and amenities of a club might draw people, the fact is that who is in the club plays a big role as well. It’s human nature when we join any group or endeavor to find out who else belongs.
Let me be clear: I know Mr. Sellers wouldn’t be raising this question if he wasn’t running against Mr. McMaster. And I realize that there are others he knows to be members he isn’t asking to resign.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a legitimate issue here.
And the focus isn’t simply on desegregating a private club. Private clubs have the right to have the members they want. And, quite frankly, I don’t know any black people — or any other people — who want to be in the presence of someone who doesn’t want to be with them.
This is about building an inclusive community and state, led by people who work to build bridges as well as ensure that those not in the room, so to speak, are represented.
Lest we forget, let me remind you why people have raised questions about all-white clubs.
For decades, these clubs were where major business deals and connections were made. If you weren’t a member, you were locked out of the power structure. And not only were business deals being made, but seeds of public policy were sown in this atmosphere. Those who weren’t a part of the club didn’t get the ear of lawmakers or top business people. How do you square pledging an oath to serve in the entire public’s best interest while joining an exclusive club that omits members of the very public you serve?
As far as private clubs go, fortunately there are attractive alternatives in our community today in the form of the Capital City Club, started with the purpose of attracting people of all races, as well as once exclusionary clubs that ended such policies.
If the Forest Lake club has changed its ways, it’s done nothing to indicate that. And expect it to continue to refuse to share anything about its membership with the public. But it’s hard for me to believe that its members are left to wonder — unless they choose not to know.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.