Woods-Obama parallel includes some pitfalls Racial breakthroughs don't always bring progress.

Posted: November 17, 2008

It's not that far-fetched to argue that Tiger Woods' popularity helped pave the way for Barack Obama's smashing victory. That legions of golfing white businessmen already idolized Woods may well have made it less of a stretch for them and others to imagine a black man as the country's president.

For that matter, Woods, much like Obama, presents himself as something of a "post-racial" figure, crossing old color lines by virtue of his mixed ancestry.

But whether or not Woods helped some vote for Obama, the superstar golfer's effect on his sport offers a cautionary lesson about the effect of an Obama presidency: There's no necessary correlation between the feel-good symbolism of a racial breakthrough and actual, on-the-ground progress toward a race-blind America.

Many observers predicted that Woods' example would revolutionize the sociology of golf. They thought many more minority kids would be encouraged to take up the old Scottish pastime, and that the sport would shed its ugly racial past once and for all. (The Professional Golfers' Association Tour had a Caucasians-only clause until 1961.)

The golf establishment promotes its youth-golf programs with "Kumbaya"-style TV ads showing smiling inner-city kids, as if the game had indeed put the messy matters of race and money in the rearview mirror.

Actually, though, golf has gone into racial reverse by many measures. Back in the 1970s, 10 African Americans played on the PGA Tour. A poor Chicano kid from Dallas, Lee Trevino, became one of the era's top golfers.

Today, Woods is the lone black golfer among the 125 card-holding pros, and there are no black rising stars. Two U.S.-born Latinos now play on the PGA Tour, as do an increased international contingent and some exciting new Asian American stars. But the circuit remains overwhelmingly composed of whites from country-club backgrounds.

You don't even see black or Latino caddies anymore, now that carrying the golf bags of someone like Woods or Phil Mickelson has become a lucrative enterprise.

The reasons for the whitening of professional golf are complex. For example, in the age of the golf cart, golfers no longer use caddies, except for the touring pros. This has shut a traditional back door into the game for poor and minority kids. And to train a golf champion takes big money that many black and Latino families do not have.

So does the Tiger Woods paradox really tell us anything about an Obama presidency? I think so. If the visibility of Woods promotes the illusion of race as "fixed" in golf, the very same danger exists with Obama and the country as a whole.

His election encourages a fuzzy, self-congratulatory feeling that we've exorcised the demons of slavery and Jim Crow at last. It can be easy to forget the outsize hardships facing so many black and Latino kids growing up in tough neighborhoods, and just how often poverty, marginalization and brown skin still travel together in America today.

And we don't yet have a government that looks exactly like America either. Just as Woods is now the only African American on the PGA Tour, so Obama was the only one in the U.S. Senate.

The important question is whether an Obama administration will make strides toward addressing the old demons of poverty and racial inequality that still haunt 21st-century America. His election was a good opening drive. But we still have a long iron over water ahead.

Orin Starn is a cultural anthropology professor at Duke University.

E-mail Orin Starn at ostarn@duke.edu.

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