The swim club controversy shows how many of today's institutions perpetuate racial segregation and mistrust.
By Jeff Wiltse
Following a suburban swim club's attempt to cancel its agreement with a Philadelphia day camp serving minority children, journalists, bloggers, and Sen. Arlen Specter have been among those expressing shock that such apparently blatant discrimination could occur today in the Northeast. "This is the sort of thing you'd hear about in 1966, during the height of the civil rights movement," said Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, "not in 2009, and not in [Philadelphia]."
I am not surprised that underlying racial prejudice was exposed at a swimming pool. Since the very first pools opened in the mid-19th century, Americans have intensely contested access to them, because pools are such visually and physically intimate spaces. Not too many decades ago, white Northerners literally beat black children with fists and bats for attempting to swim in whites-only pools.
But the real lesson of the Valley Club incident is not that racial prejudice persists among well-to-do, white Northerners, or that swimming pools are still contested spaces. It's that our nation's history of racial discrimination is difficult to overcome because many Americans continue to live and recreate in social environments that are the product of past prejudices.
Suburban swim clubs date to the early 1950s, when, not coincidentally, public swimming pools throughout the northern United States were being racially desegregated. The white Americans who were moving out to the suburbs in droves at the time chose to organize private swim clubs rather than fund public pools, in large part because they could still legally exclude non-whites from private clubs.
Postwar suburbs were likewise a product of racial prejudice. Developers restricted homeownership to whites, and many suburbanites moved out of cities to escape the breakdown of residential segregation in urban neighborhoods.
In short, the era's racial prejudice caused middle-class whites to create restricted environments that ensured they would not have to interact with people different from themselves.
Since the 1950s, racial prejudice has surely diminished. But the relatively homogenous social environments created then remain. Socially exclusive suburbs and swim clubs have outlived the intense prejudice that brought them into being.
As a result, many Americans do not interact in a meaningful way with people from different class and racial backgrounds. Ideologically, they may embrace social and cultural pluralism. But they do not have the social experiences that would enable them to develop trust and understanding of people different from themselves. Consequently, they are only comfortable around people who are socially similar to themselves.
This was why, it seems to me, some members of the Valley Club reacted as they did to the Creative Steps campers.
If Americans want to avoid future Valley Club incidents, we need to do more than continue to unteach racial prejudice and elect black public officials. We need to break down the structural segregation that perpetuates homogenous social environments.
A good start might be for Montgomery County to fund a gigantic swimming pool that would be open to all, including children from Northeast Philadelphia. But people would still need to commit themselves to using a public facility instead of secluding themselves in private clubs or their own backyards.
Article from Philadelphia Enquirer
Jeff Wiltse is an associate professor of history at the University of Montana, Missoula, and the author of "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America." He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.