IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Tonya Russell Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and his beach club receive badly needed scrutiny

Whatever their stated ideals, members at exclusive social clubs help maintain pockets of privilege that help keep people marginalized.

Some spaces in our society are still quietly able to get away with maintaining a white status quo — though every now and then, one gets loudly called out. Such is the case with Bailey's Beach Club, the allegedly all-white private social club frequented by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, attention to which sparked a furor this week.

Their very membership perpetuates a system that’s based on gate-keeping, even if a token person of color or religious minority is allowed through every now and then.

Beach clubs, country clubs, racquet clubs, whatever you want to call them, aren’t just venues for playing sports — after all, take a look at how many members aren’t even that great at tennis. They’re places where deals are made, jobs are filled, and white dominance is perpetuated.

When asked about the monoracial culture of his family’s social club, Whitehouse, a progressive who has spoken out repeatedly against "systemic racism,” defended his membership by saying that "the club has informed me that it does in fact have diversity of membership." His spokesman, Richard Davidson, also told NBC News, “The club has had and has members of color."

But it seems Whitehouse never asked the club’s management questions about the lack of representation, taking the beach club at its word when it said it was diverse. (The club did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News this week after Whitehouse’s membership made headlines.)

And therein lies the fundamental problem with these institutions: Whatever the stated ideals of the people who attend them, they are content for them to continue as pockets of privilege and exclusivity rather than working to change them. Their very membership perpetuates a system that’s based on gate-keeping, even if a token person of color or religious minority is allowed through every now and then.

Let’s not forget that many clubs were integrated unwillingly, including the storied New York Athletic Club, which was strong-armed into admitting women in the 1980s and had a history of turning away greats like Olympian Marty Glickman for being Jewish.

This strong-arming isn’t lost on many marginalized groups. While clubs can pledge diversity, there may be few comfortable enough to attend, and often they’re tokenized. It’s quite off-putting to be a “fly in the buttermilk” as my grandma says.

Just this weekend, I attended the first Juneteenth celebration at a historic cricket club in Philadelphia, one of the oldest in the country. To mark the occasion, the club’s first Black member was given an award. He was lively and spry, like many under the age of 70 are. That’s right. The club has been operating for over 150 years, and it spent more than half its existence without even one member of color.

The crowd may have been welcoming Saturday, but not every person interested in joining a cricket or golf or tennis club will feel what I felt. And plenty of places that outwardly claim to welcome Blacks, Jews and other groups that historically faced “restricted” access keep themselves homogenous by requiring nominations or invitations.

A white person in power, like Whitehouse, may not immediately see the damage of being in an essentially whites-only space. But environments that lack diversity add to longstanding confirmation and unconscious bias. This means that you are more likely to hire and bond with someone who has the same interests as you or holds similar beliefs about a group that you’ve had limited experiences with.

Choosing to socialize only with people who look like you is detrimental when it’s time to consider a job applicant or vote on policies affecting someone’s well-being; diversity opens your mind, builds empathy and expands your worldview.

The Pew Research Center finds that the more educated a person of color is, the more likely that person is to experience microaggressions, as upward mobility thrusts them into mostly white spaces. Black people who've attended college are more likely to hear slurs or be the butt of jokes than those with a high school diploma or less. This is why true diversity, not mere tokenism, matters.

Critics may point to social clubs that cater to people of color, specifically Black people. However, Black spaces have historically welcomed other races, such as the Jewish refugees who were ostracized from certain white neighborhoods and organizations during and after World War II. And it’s important to remember that these clubs were started because their members had been excluded elsewhere and didn’t have other options.

As in the animal kingdom, biodiversity leads to a balanced ecosystem, keeping predators and prey in check and leading to a harmonious existence. We should look at our work and play spaces in the same way — and, when a white person enters an all-white space, they should make some effort to change the composition. That’s the only way we can finally break up the old boys' clubs.