Rhode Island was in the national news last week for all the wrong reasons. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse defended his family’s membership in an “all-white” club — the private Bailey’s Beach Club — to a GoLocalProv reporter, defending it as a “long tradition in Rhode Island.”
The story was picked up by FOX, CNN, the Washington Post, NBC and the New York Post, among other national outlets.
If you believe Whitehouse in all of this, the story was overblown. In response to the controversy going national, the senator said he himself is not a member and won’t ask any member of his family to resign. He also said the premise that the club is “all-white” is false.
“There is diversity in the membership and there are non-white club members,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “Improving diversity remains a priority and an active task for the club’s new board.”
The club made its own statement to the same effect, and club president Alexander Auersperg said in an internal email that the organization does not discriminate “against any race, religion, or ethnic background when it comes to our membership process.”
But these statements don’t address the actual issue with the club — an issue that many of the original articles also missed. From the get-go, it was hard to believe that a club would be “all white” in 2021. Even in the demographically less-diverse New England, it seems next to impossible that an affluent club wouldn’t have a single person of color as a member.
The problem with the club is that being a member depends on your affluence and social position — something that more often than not hurts people of color. So it’s not active discrimination that’s the problem; it’s passive discrimination.
Whether that is a valid complaint against Whitehouse’s membership at Bailey’s Beach is up for debate. But what is known for certain is that Whitehouse’s response to the question he received should have been far better.
This isn’t the first time he’s faced criticism over his involvement with the club. In 2017, GoLocalProv raised the question, to which Whitehouse said people “running the place are still working on that and I’m sorry it hasn’t happened yet.”
Knowing your weaknesses and vulnerabilities — and being prepared to face them — is part of the job of politicians. The fact that Whitehouse was not ready to answer that question (and, in fact, answered it in the worst way possible, citing a “long tradition”) is inexcusable and could cost him when he is up for re-election in 2024.
Yes, this story may have been overblown. Yes, the language of an “all-white” beach club portrays something more sinister than what Whitehouse is actually a member of. But there’s no excuse for how Whitehouse managed this controversy and how Bailey’s Beach hasn’t solved the problem already.
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