Race and swimming pools

After years of attending a public swimming pool in Raleigh (Lake Johnson Pool), my family just two weeks ago joined a private swim club for the first time.  Lake Johnson has an awesome “sprayground” and is plenty affordable, but there’s not much shallow area where my kids can just safely play (alas, David is the only one who is a good enough swimmer that we can trust above 4 feet– we’re really going to work on that this summer).  So we saw an affordable membership offered for a local pool (with a nice good-sized shallow area, 2-3 feet, and diving boards, which I love), so we joined.  The public pool resembled a trip to the local grocery store– the racial diversity of our area– white, Black, Hispanic, South Asian in a pretty good mix.  Never thought too much of it as this is the kind of world I want to live in.  First weekend at our private pool and Kim and were both completely struck by how damn lily white our pool is– probably 95% or so.  Not the world I want to live in.  But we do love the pool, so that’s not changing.  (Lest you doubt our bonafides on living our values of diversity, here’s the demographics of our kids’ elementary school, which we love).

Anyway, I had been meaning to write a blog post about these observations minus any larger context.  Then I read this great article in the Atlantic yesterday about the horrible pool party incident in McKinney, Texas (and if you think race didn’t play a role, you are probably hopelessly racist).  I was fascinated by the summary of the history of private swimming pools.  Sadly, not surprised, but definitely had my eyes opened:

At their inception, communal swimming pools were public, egalitarian spaces. Most early public pools in America aimed more for hygiene than relaxation, open on alternate days to men and women. In the North, at least, they served bathers without regard for race. But in the 1920s, as public swimming pools proliferated, they became sites of leisure and recreation. Alarmed at the sight of women and men of different races swimming together, public officials moved to impose rigid segregation.

As African Americans fought for desegregation in the 1950s, public pools became frequent battlefields. In Marshall, Texas, for example, in 1957, a young man backed by the NAACP sued to force the integration of a brand-new swimming pool. When the judge made it clear the city would lose, citizens voted 1,758-89 to have the city sell all of its recreational facilities rather than integrate them. The pool was sold to a local Lions’ Club, which was able to operate it as a whites-only private facility.

The decisions of other communities were rarely so transparent, but the trend was unmistakable. Before 1950, Americans went swimming as often as they went to the movies, but they did so in public pools. There were relatively few club pools, and private pools were markers of extraordinary wealth. Over the next half-century, though, the number of private in-ground pools increased from roughly 2,500 to more than four million. The declining cost of pool construction, improved technology, and suburbanization all played important roles. But then, so did desegregation. As historian Jeff Wiltse argues in his 2007 book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America:

Although many whites abandoned desegregated public pools, most did not stop swimming. Instead, they built private pools, both club and residential, and swam in them …. Suburbanites organized private club pools rather than fund public pools because club pools enabled them to control the class and racial composition of swimmers, whereas public pools did not…

Whatever took place in McKinney on Friday, it occurred against this backdrop of the privatization of once-public facilities, giving residents the expectation of control over who sunbathes or doggie-paddles alongside them. Even if some of the teens were residents, and others possessed valid guest passes, as some insisted they did, the presence of “multiple juveniles…who do not live in the area” clearly triggered alarm. Several adults at the pool reportedly placed calls to the police. And none of the adult residents shown in the video appeared to manifest concern that the police response had gone too far, nor that its violence was disproportionate to the alleged offense.

To the contrary. Someone placed a sign by the pool on Sunday afternoon. It read, simply: “Thank you McKinney Police for keeping us safe.”

So, that hurt to learn that I’m now basically part of the problem.  And the basic equating of keeping Black teenagers out of the pool as “keeping us safe.”  Just wow.

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