BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
With an escalating number of reports of incidents at swimming pools across the country, harassment and discrimination against African Americans enjoying this summer pastime is, to paraphrase Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), "as American as cherry pie."
"This summer, a black boy was harassed by a white woman in South Carolina; a black woman was asked to provide identification by a white man in North Carolina; and a black man wearing socks in the water had the police called on him by a white manager of an apartment complex in Tennessee," The New York Times' Niraj Choksi recently pointed out.
Last month, at the Foster Brown public swimming pool in Wilmington, Delaware, several young African American girls were told they had to get out of the pool because of their hijabs (headscarves) and their modest clothing, which included t-shirts and longer shorts. The pool manager claimed that the cotton clothing the children were wearing would clog the pool's filtration system. "There's nothing posted that says you can't swim in cotton," Tahsiyn Ismaa'eel, who runs an Arabic enrichment program for young people and has taken the children there for the past four years, told The News Journal. "At the same time, there are other kids with cotton on. … I asked, 'Why are my kids being treated differently?'"
As the lead sentence of Choksi's piece stated, "The poolside confrontations keep coming."
These incidents may actually only be the tip of an iceberg, representing only those that have been videoed and/or reported. In light these events, The New York Times' Choksi looks at the history of harassment and discrimination experienced by African Americans at swimming pools around the country. In the age of Trump, while barefaced racism at public swimming pools no longer manifests itself institutionally, it is not a stretch to expect more incidents similar to the ones catalogued above.
"Pools have historically been the sites of major feuds over race, income, and access," journalist Olga Khazan pointed out in a recent piece in The Atlantic magazine.
In his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, (2007, University of North Carolina Press), author Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana, provides a social and cultural history of swimming pools in the United States, taking an uncompromising look at discrimination, harassment, and violence perpetrated over the years by white people against African Americans at swimming venues.
In the Introduction, Wiltse's delves into the long and complicated history of municipal swimming pools; how what was once open to all, eventually "served as stages for social conflict." "People who might otherwise might come in no closer contact than passing on the street, now waited in line together, undressed next to one another, and shared the same water." These things ultimately led to municipal pools becoming "contested civic spaces."
There were health scares; Whites accused African Americans of bringing diseases and sanitation issues to pools. There were attempts to integrate neighborhood pools that were met with white-led mob violence. There were incidents where hundreds of white people harassed, chased, and beat African Americans daring to use public pools. In 1964, arrests were made when African American protesters held a "dive in" at a pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida.
To combat integrated pools, public pools were built in areas where African Americans were not welcome.
Contested Waters describes a heartbreaking incident in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1951. After a Little League team won the city championship, they decided to celebrate at the local pool. "To celebrate their baseball victory, coaches, players, parents, and siblings showed up at the pool, but not all were admitted. One player, Al Bright, was denied entrance because he was black." While everyone else played in the pool, the lifeguards forced Bright to sit outside the fence surrounding the pool. There was enough of a protest that the lifeguards changed their tune, sort of. It was decided that Bright could enter the pool as long as everyone else got out and he sat inside a rubber raft. "Just don't touch the water," the lifeguard reminded the young boy as he pushed him around the pool. "Whatever you do, don't touch the water."
Wiltse recently told Raw Story that "For nearly a century, blacks and whites have mostly swum separately from one another. Gender integration was a direct cause of racial segregation. Most whites did not want black men interacting with white women at such intimate public spaces."
Court-ordered desegregation did not solve the issue, as whites "retreated to public pools located within thoroughly white neighborhoods, where intimidation still worked to maintain de facto segregation," Wiltse pointed out.
In addition, The Atlantic's Olga Khazan pointed out, "As civil-rights activists pushed to desegregate [pools], many cities privatized the facilities rather than be forced to integrate them. Private and exclusive pools became more common; public ones, less so."
"In the many places where residential segregation persists, however, blacks and whites still swim separately. This is especially apparent at private club pools and private community pools," Wiltse noted. "They mostly remain sites of whites-only recreation, even though their racial exclusivity today results more from economic inequality, residential segregation, and the legacy of past discrimination than from overt acts of present-day discrimination."
According to a 2017 U.S.A. Swimming Foundation study, the sport's national governing body found that 64 percent of African-American children have no or low swimming ability, compared with 45 percent Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children. While these numbers are unfortunate, given the historic discrimination against African Americans in swimming pools across the country, they are not surprising.
In an article (.PDF) titled "The Black-White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination" (Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 2014), Jeff Wiltse "contends that past discrimination in the provision of and access to swimming pools is largely responsible for the current swimming disparity and thus indirectly responsible, at least in part, for the current drowning disparity."
In his 2014 piece, Wiltse wrote: "During much of the 20th century, Black Americans faced widespread discrimination that severely limited their access to swimming pools and swim lessons. The most consequential discrimination occurred at public swimming pools and took three basic forms. Public officials and White swimmers denied Black Americans access to pools earmarked for Whites. Cities provided relatively few pools for Black residents, and the pools they did provide were typically small and dilapidated. And, third, cities closed many public pools in the wake of desegregation, just as they became accessible to Black Americans."
During the period from 1920 to 1940, when swimming "first became popularized in the United States," Black Americans "faced restricted access to Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) pools and YMCA swim lessons." Wiltse pointed out that "Black Americans were systematically denied access to the tens of thousands of suburban swim clubs opened during the 1950s and 1960s. These pools spurred a second great leap forward in the popularity of swimming, but only for the millions of White families that were able to join."
Historic discrimination is one of the things that has resulted in the fatal drowning rate for African-American kids ages 5 to 14, to be almost three times higher than that of white children in the same age range, according to the most recent years for which Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data is available, ABC News recently reported.
Cullen Jones, the gold medalist and four-time Olympian who nearly drowned as a child, is "working to teach more people of color how to swim, while also raising awareness about water safety," ABC News reported.
Despite historic discrimination, some African American swimmers are excelling in their chosen sport. In 2004, Maritza McClendon became the first black female U.S. Olympic team member. Twelve years later, at the Brazil Olympics, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming medal. Her Stanford teammate Lia Neal had captured a silver medal as a part of the 4×100 freestyle relay. "I'm super glad with the fact I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport," she said at the time. She then added, "I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it's not Simone, the black swimmer."
Hopefully, the much publicized accomplishments of these athletes will open up opportunities for African American youth to learn how to swim. Meanwhile, in the age of Trump, racially charged incidents at swimming pools across the country will likely continue to escalate.