Democratic senator reveals he is member of exclusive sailing club amid diversity backlash over wife’s beach club

·3-min read
Beachgoers enjoy the sunset in Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Pandora Media))
Beachgoers enjoy the sunset in Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Pandora Media))

A Democratic Senator from Rhode Island is denying he’s a member of an exclusive beach club that critics say is essentially all-white.

Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the scion of a prominent political and business family, is facing renewed scrutiny over his connection to Bailey’s Beach Club, a hyper-exclusive private club known for catering to elite American families like the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Du Ponts.

On Wednesday, the Democratic senator said in a statement that his wife and family members are part of the club, but he isn’t.

“There have been calls for me to resign from the club, which I understand. However, I have no membership to resign, nor will I ask my wife or any other family members to do so," the senator said. "First, they are on the right side of pushing for improvements. Second, and more importantly, my relationship with my family is not one in which I tell them what to do."

The club, formally known as the Spouting Rock Beach Association, where reserving a beachside cabana costs tens of thousands of dollars, also denied that it was all-white.

"Recent characterizations in the press and in other commentary about Baileys Beach Club are inaccurate and false,” the club told the Providence Journal. “Over many years, Club members and their families have included people of many racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds from around the world who come to Newport every summer. Our membership comes from all over the globe to our small club and we welcome the diversity of view and background they bring to our community."

Club members told The New York Times in a 2003 profile that the club’s membership wasn’t very diverse, despite its stated policies.

“Jewish, yes,’’ Audrey Oswald, a lifelong member replied, on who actually is a member. ‘’Blacks, not really.”

The senator, who reportedly transferred his shares in the club to his wife in 2017 after years of promising to quit, did acknowledge his membership in an exclusive sailing club, which he hopes to encourage to become more diverse.

"While I am not a member of the beach club, I do own a boat and belong to a sailing club in Newport," he added in his statement. "While this club does not have exclusionary rules for membership, it does lack diversity. Failing to address the sailing club’s lack of diversity is squarely on me, and something for which I am sorry.”

Some criticised the Rhode Island legislator for the discrepancies between his civil rights work, which earned him an “A” rating from the Providence chapter of the NAACP, and his membership of such blue-blood institutions.

“The senator says he’s about systemic change in America,” Gary Dantzler, founder of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, told The Washington Post. “But the problem that I have with [his membership in an allegedly all-white club] is that it’s almost a contradiction. Someone with that power that we elected to be our senator, our watchdog, he’s not fulfilling the part of being transparent to African Americans, so I have a huge problem with that.”

In addition to more obvious kinds of racial segregation in housing and employment, many outdoor recreation facilities like beaches and public pools were formally segregated for decades, and reman tacitly so.

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