Sheldon Whitehouse Now Remembers All The POC At His Allegedly All-White Rhode Island Club
Last week, just before the Juneteenth holiday weekend, a reporter asked Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about his family's membership in the private Bailey's Beach Club in Newport, Rhode Island. The club is allegedly “all white," and presumably the “allegedly" is because this is Newport, Rhode Island, we're talking about. The local NAACP is probably all white. (Allegedly!)
The true controversy would be if the club was “restricted" and actively prohibited the admission of minorities, including Jewish people, whom white racists have also historically treated like crap. Whitehouse was further asked if the club has admitted any minority members since the issue was first raised in 2017. His response wasn't encouraging.
WHITEHOUSE: I think the people who are running the place are still working on that and I'm sorry it hasn't happened yet.
Well, at least he's sorry.
During his 2006 Senate campaign, Whitehouse reportedly “vowed to quit the club," but it's not like vows are legally binding. The club might make great Dark 'N' Stormys. Do you expect him to give that up? Instead, Whitehouse transferred his personal shares of Bailey's Beach Club to his wife, Sandra Thornton Whitehouse. Excuse us for a moment, but aren't these just the whitest names you ever came across? Reading their family Bible out loud could save you a trip to the dentist.
Sandra Thornton Whitehouse is now one of the biggest shareholders in the allegedly “all white" club. It's unclear how that improved matters politically for her husband. The couple still belongs to an organization that couldn't recruit a single Black member in four years. Newport is 4.4 percent Black. That's just outside the margin of error, so Black people definitely live there. The statistically low number might have some upsides. If it's the South, where there's a lot of Black people, the project could feel overwhelming. Here, at least, club management could ask someone at county records for the names of the dozen or so Black residents. It's a manageable list.
Whitehouse has spoken out against systemic racism, specifically after George Floyd's murder and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. That's certainly better than belonging to an "all white" club and supporting police violence. Whitehouse isn't a member of a police union or the Republican Party. But when asked about this apparent hypocrisy, Whitehouse could only say “it's a long tradition in Rhode Island." WTF? He continued:
WHITEHOUSE: There are many of them and I think we just need to work our way through the issues, thank you.
A spokesman for Whitehouse told the Washington Post that the club has "no restrictive policy regarding race." This is arguably parsing parsnips, as New England private clubs and even businesses back in the day usually avoided overtly describing spaces as “whites and colored only." These restrictions were just understood. The spokesman insisted that "the club has had and has members of color." Whitehouse has belonged to this club forever and never noticed the few minority members? That's taking “I don't see race" a bit too far. It's become a political liability.
Apparently, after consulting with his spokesman, Whitehouse no longer believes the club has any issues they “just need to work [their] way through."
Whitehouse also made the clarification himself, telling NBC-10, "There is no discriminatory policy, and the club has had and does have, a membership of color." He said there was "never" such a policy. Whitehouse also said the club has "a long tradition of being a family club, and they're working on improving diversity. I think that's pretty fair."
Whitehouse's use of “membership of color" here seems both awkward and deliberate. Maybe the “diverse" members are really tan.
But we're probably giving Whitehouse a hard time. Someone in his position can easily fail to notice how white his everyday world is. He does work in the US Senate.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."