JOHN MCWHORTER JULY 13, 2009
The Valley Swim Club case in Philadelphia is a useful demonstration of the role that racism plays in Obama’s America where we are supposedly “post-racial.”
The Creative Steps Day Camp, with mostly black kids, had paid to be able swim at the club. When the kids jumped into the pool, according to what some of them say, certain white members came up with the likes of “What are all these black kids doing here? I’m scared they might do something to my child.”
That quote comes from Dymore Baylor, and we will not assume he’s lying.
Subsequently, the group were turned away and the Day Camp’s check was returned.
John Duesler, the president, claims that the problem was that there were more kids than he expected, and that with 65 of them, the club couldn’t guarantee their safety.
The word on the street, however, is that Duesler and the other club members just didn’t want black kids swimming in their pool. The club has been picketed, and the incident is now the Racism Story of the Week, purportedly showing that despite our black president, We’ve Come a Long Way, But We Still Have a Long Way To Go – i.e. that America is still all about racism. Scratch the surface – like having dark-skinned kiddies scantily clad in the water alongside whites – and it’s the same old story.
No. This Philly story is a perfect demonstration of exactly where we are on race in 2009. Perfect, no. But the same old story? Anyone who looks at the whole situation and insists on that is spitting in the eye of their grandparents. Or parents.
The crucial fact here is that this club had previously turned away not one but two similar white groups because they were too numerous. Issues of pool safety naturally seem less interesting than whether whites are racist – until a kid loses five teeth cracking his mouth on the concrete slipping on the wet edge of a pool.
So, if John Duesler says that he wasn’t turning away the Creative Steps group because they were black, we will not assume he’s lying, given that he has the rock-solid alibi of turning away similarly numerous groups who were white. Duesler, in this, deserves the same respect as Dymore Baylor.
But – there’s one problem. Duesler said one thing which will give this thing legs – the money quote of the whole incident. “There was a concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion and the atmosphere of the club.”
Excuse me, word choice? But.
The idea that this one word reveals Duesler and the club’s entire deep-down intention is viscerally appealing – I myself felt that reading initial reports of this thing – but hasty. Yes, hasty – because: this is a club that had previously turned down white groups for having too many kids. That fact cannot be ignored in our evaluation of this case.
This weekend I happened to be in Philadelphia giving a talk, and one of the sponsors of the event was a friend of Duesler’s. He told me that the strange thing about the way Duesler is going to be treated in the media this week is that he is actually the kind of person who would be carpooling inner city kids to pools and assorted other places.
So what does it mean when a man who is 1) committed to helping the disadvantaged, and 2) has turned down white groups from his swimming club because of their numerousness, says that he is concerned about the “complexion” of his club?
It means that he intended the broader meaning of that word. “Complexion” can mean “feel,” “atmosphere,” as opposed to referring to skin tone. Yeah, yeah – one might say. I’m bending over backwards for him. But again: Valley had already turned away white groups!!!!
Duesler used the wrong word. He meant “complexion” as in “our quiet little swim club overrun by kids.” Note also: Valley is solely a swim club, not a country club. All it is is a quiet place to swim. This is not about who is Our Kind Of People.
So is this about how America hasn’t come any further than when, say, CORE and the NAACP had to protest to allow blacks to be able to swim in the pool at Cincinnati’s Coney Island pool in 1961? For all of the histrionic thrill of supposing so, no. Progress does happen.
Magic, however, does not – upon which we return to what Dymore Baylor and others heard. What happened at the Valley Swim Club was that while the group was asked to leave for the same reason that white groups were also barred, there were, yes, some individual club members who bristled at black kids suddenly popping up in large numbers.
Yeah, yeah -- they wouldn’t have minded if there were just a few black kids, but once there are so many, then there was a tipping point – yes. Yep. Old news. That is the way it is with some people.
Especially, if I may return their favor, those people. Word on the street in Philly, my home town where I have assorted informants, is that Huntingdon Park is the terrain of a certain, shall we say, recently arrived white set who are no strangers to parochial perspectives on race. We are always, in the sociohistorical sense, intermediate.
But how those people felt was not why the Creative Steps folks got their check back.
No, it wasn’t, and that’s the key here. There were two things going on – how the administration felt about something as dull as safety, as well as the difference between a quiet sanctuary and a teeming camp “atmo” (“complexion”). That was what sent the check back.
On the other hand, there were some stupid, parochial comments by some backwards folks peeping on the sidelines.
Now, I fully understand that to a kid there that day, the peeping was what they carried away. It hurt. I wish it hadn’t happened.
But you know, in the end, Dymore will live on just fine as will all the other kids. Heartless of me? Okay – imagine interviewing him in 2015; do you really think he will break down in tears about how that one day wrecked his entire self-conception?
And otherwise, to read what happened at that club as evidence that We Haven’t Come As Far As We Thought is wrong. The club acted on issues of mundane procedure (again: white groups had been excluded). A few members were social troglodytes. Unpretty indeed.
However, when we hear from one parent of a Creative Step kid that “the pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately,” frankly, with all due acknowledgment of the pain caused by what actually was said around those kids, I must, with regret, charge that it’s a lie.
I am willing to take the risk of writing that. I mean it precisely, and will gladly eat crow if it is proven otherwise subsequently. Sorry – nobody in their right mind, even if they felt that way, would have stood there and said that. It is not 1961, despite the peculiar wish some have that it still was.
And in any case, last I heard, the issue we were to be concerned with wasn’t one-on-one racism but institutional racism, The System, the bigger picture. Well, at Valley, what happened was just little overheard brush of old one-on-one, which none of us expect will ever be entirely absent. Some people saying some stuff. The club – The Institution – can only be viewed as racist in a willfully blind, recreational sense.
To the extent that it is considered somehow “incorrect” to draw that distinction, we are witnessing a viewpoint which will be considered increasingly retrograde as time, blissfully, goes by.