De-synchronized Swimming

During a recent get-together with my cousin, the conversation shifted, as it inevitably does, to the weird but probably typical childhoods we both spent in an unremarkable suburb in the American Northeast. We love to reminisce about this place, not necessarily with admiration, but with the fascinated, conflicted nostalgia that one might feel for, say, a beloved dog that eventually went insane with rabies and attacked the entire family.

On this recent occasion, much to the eye-rolling exasperation of our spouses, we struck off down that path again. We settled on a fairly common topic: the local swim club.

The pool was a hub of the community: a hangout place for kids, a getaway for grownups, and, for those of us who swam on the team, a place to compete with other local swimmers and mostly lose (we were in the ‘F’ division in a league that ranked teams from A to F). But my most recent discovery in my extensive inspection of Memory Lane seemed so anachronistic and inappropriate that I wasn’t sure I hadn’t dreamed it up.

When my sister and I were what is known as “tweens”, that is, about nine and 11-years-old, we wanted to bring a couple of our friends to the pool as guests. This was always a special occasion – the chance to spend a day at the pool with a non-member friend, to proudly show them where to find the kickboards, to explain the best way to go down the sliding board, to recommend items of fine cuisine at the snack bar. Plus, we got to reap the benefit of being able to play with a hand-picked friend, rather than having to make do with whoever showed up.

On this occasion, one of my sister’s chosen guests was a smart, sweet, well-behaved girl who happened to be black. The way I remember it, it was explained by our parents in hushed, apologetic tones that this girl might not be welcome at the pool because she was black. What astounds me now was that this was some time in the ‘80s.

I asked my cousin if maybe my memory was betraying me. Such a level of discrimination seemed egregious for that late date. Hadn’t the country at least outwardly moved beyond segregation at that point?

Apparently not. My cousin agreed that although he knew of no official rule that prohibited black swimmers in that pool, there was definitely a sense that such intermingling was frowned upon. Neither of us could recall any black kids swimming at the pool. We marveled at how, after decades of progress and social change, our ridiculous hometown had managed to remain untouched by time.

Well, that shows how little we knew. This conversation, which took place in 2009, would precede by a mere month or so an incident at a suburban Pennsylvania swim club that was much more virulent – and which suggested that very little has changed at all, even today.

According to various news reports, a day camp called Creative Steps had initiated a program in which 65 children, mostly black and Hispanic, would swim at the Valley Swim Club in Huntington, a gated suburban community pool. But within minutes of their first visit, the kids reported to their camp director that they’d overheard people asking, “What are those black kids doing here?” (See “Suburban Philly pool faces discrimination suit”, AP, 13 July 2009).

A few days later, according to the reports, the swim club revoked the camp’s contract and refunded its $1,950. The swim club’s president went on to make a curious word choice in explaining the decision to a local television station, saying that “there is a lot of concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … the atmosphere of the club.” The president later backpedaled on this particular quote, stating that the decision was based on the fact that there were too many children in the group, and that too few of them knew how to swim.

This second explanation did little to quell the controversy that ensued. The event sparked widespread media coverage, protests at the club, and most recently, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It was somewhere around this time that I had to admit to myself that my surprise at the discriminative attitudes from my ‘80s childhood was ridiculously naïve. It seems that where swimming pools are concerned, the United States is a good 30 years behind the overall progress of racial tolerance. In the same year that this country elected a black president, the frighteningly backwoods mindset of suburban neighborhoods with public swimming pools has been permitted to remain largely intact.

I was struck by the strangeness of this. We’re now living in a society where, at the very least, political correctness requires people to at least appear accepting of racial differences. Regardless of how someone might really feel about interracial marriages, racially blended schools, or a black man serving in the highest office of the United States, propriety now prohibits the flaunting of such attitudes. While it would be Utopian to suggest that such narrow-minded attitudes no longer exist, they have, at least for the most part, been driven underground.

And so it’s difficult for me to understand how the swim club could even have entertained the notion ot revoking the membership of a minority day camp, much less to have gone ahead and done so. Certainly, the backlash has confirmed that, indeed, such behavior is not to be tolerated. But the mere fact that they tried suggests to me that suburban swim clubs are, in their quiet way, veritable time warps of social progress. In the United States, I think they are among the last bastions of open racism.

Book: Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

Author: Jeff Wiltse

Publisher: University of North Carolina Press

Publication date: 2007-04

Length: 288 pages

Format: Hardcover

Image: course, segregated swimming pools have a long history in America. In his 2007 book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Reed Business Information), historian Jeff Wiltse chronicles the cultural progress (or lack thereof) in municipal swimming pools from the 1860s to the present. In a previous interview, Wiltse says that “while municipal swimming pools are officially desegregated, they have yet to fully integrate.”

Wiltse writes that originally, swimming pools were racially blended, with the only division being between male and female swimmers, who used pools on different days. This changed after World War I, when pools became more “family oriented” leisure spots, with men and women swimming together.

This, apparently, sparked the age-old, racist fear of The Black Man as a sexual threat to The White Woman. Segregation at this point, Wiltse writes, was driven primarily by the fear of interracial mixing among the less-than-fully-clad swimmers.

In later years, a more germ-based mentality began to prevail, drawn perhaps from the presumed exposure of ‘clean’ bare white skin to ‘unclean’ bare black skin. Wiltse recounts one disturbing anecdote that took place in 1950’s Ohio, in which a black boy, originally denied access to the pool, was finally permitted one trip around the pool so long as he stayed inside a rubber raft. The lifeguard, who grudgingly facilitated this ride, instructed the child, “Just don’t touch the water. Whatever you do, just don’t touch the water.”

Somehow, as so many other racial divides have been crossed in the ensuing years, as blacks have forged ahead in formerly white professions, succeeded in business, politics and medicine, and as, indeed, sexual relations and marriage between the races have ceased to be taboo or even federally discriminated against, the suburban swimming pool alone seems to be the recalcitrant, pernicious seat of racial discrimination. Even as the fears behind this attitude have largely ceased to exist, the attitude itself seems to flourish quietly behind gated clubs like mushrooms in the dark.

The pervasiveness of this attitude has, over the years, reached the point where it seems to have had a long-term effect on black people’s interest and competence in swimming. According to a study conducted by USA Swimming, nearly 60 percent of African American children can’t swim. In another startling statistic, the study found that minority children are three times more likely to drown than their Caucasian counterparts.

While to some extent, these grim statistics may be related to a lack of access to swimming pools, the study also found that parents’ attitudes toward swimming played a key role in a child’s eventually learning to swim. The study also cited an erroneous yet ongoing belief that African Americans have a “lack of buoyancy” compared to Caucasians.

To raise awareness about and promote swimming in minority populations, USA Swimming has begun implementing its Make a Splash Program, which is designed to teach and encourage swimming in underrepresented and racially diverse communities. Meanwhile, the typical local suburban swim club has hopefully received a bit of a jolt into the current century.

While the Huntington Swim Club has, under the weight of media scrutiny, invited the black campers back to swim, I can’t imagine that the kids will want to. For what it’s worth, I happen to have a swimming pool in my backyard; I would be happy to have the Creative Steps day camp over for a swim whenever they’d like.

The pool rules do dictate that the last one in the water is a “rotten egg,” but that’s the only pejorative we use. And not to worry: most of the time, the “rotten egg” turns out to be me.