Born in a Hub of Diversity, Sheldon Whitehouse Found Refuge in Lily-White Newport, Rhode Island

How a privileged railroad scion fled New York City to find his racial safe space

June 24, 2021

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) claims to support racial diversity, but mounting evidence suggests he prefers to associate almost exclusively with members of the white race.

In addition to being affiliated with several exclusive clubs where minority members are few and far between, Whitehouse maintains a predominately white staff in his Washington, D.C., Senate office.

Whitehouse's apparent discomfort with racial diversity is odd, considering he was born in New York City, one of the most racially diverse locations in the world. The senator's privileged upbringing, however, likely insulated him from that diversity.

The great-great-grandson of Charles Crocker, a railroad magnate who built his fortune on the backs of Chinese immigrants, young Sheldon prepared at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., one of the most exclusive private boarding schools in the country. He went on to attend Yale College, named after slave trader Elihu Yale, and received his law degree from the University of Virginia, founded by slaveowner Thomas Jefferson.

After graduating from law school in 1982, Whitehouse began a clerkship for the Supreme Court of Appeals in West Virginia, one of the whitest states in the country, before moving on to the attorney general's office in Rhode Island, where he has remained ever since.

The senator's current residence, according to his voter registration, is in Newport, R.I., less than a mile down the road from Bailey's Beach Club, an exclusive haven for old money aristocrats described in a 2003 New York Times article as a place where "the ruling class keeps its guard up." Critics have accused the club of discouraging racial minorities from seeking membership, a claim the club denies.

"Jewish, yes.... Blacks, not really," was how one lifelong member, speaking to the Times, described the club's diversity. Though technically no longer a member, Whitehouse transferred his ownership shares in Bailey's to his wife, Sandra Thornton, in 2010. Whitehouse defended the club last week in response to a local reporter's question, suggesting that racially exclusive organizations were part of "a long tradition in Rhode Island."

In a statement released on Wednesday, the senator also acknowledged his membership in a Newport sailing club where racial diversity is similarly scant. "Failing to address the sailing club's lack of diversity is squarely on me, and something for which I am sorry," he said. Whitehouse still hasn't explained the lack of diversity in his Senate office, the one place where he has absolute authority to effect positive change. 

Among U.S. states, Rhode Island ranks toward the middle of the pack in terms of whiteness. Newport, however, is significantly whiter (and wealthier) than the state as a whole. According to U.S. census data, Rhode Island is 83.6 percent white, with a median household income of $67,167; Newport is 90.1 percent white and has a median income of $79,454.

Compared with the United States population—76.3 percent white; median income of $62,843—Newport residents are wealthier and more homogenous, which might explain why Whitehouse has found refuge there.

Despite these racially fueled controversies, and Whitehouse's demonstrated preference for members of the white race, the senator's Democratic colleagues and black activists alike have stayed silent, ignoring the Washington Free Beacon's requests for comment.

One imagines their reaction would be somewhat different if Whitehouse were a Republican.