Friday, July 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

This is a tale of two cities. It's also a tale of two types of wars. There are the wars that are waged overseas ostensibly in the interests of national security and there's the more low-key war still being fought on our shores after 450 years, one still waged by white people ostensibly in the interests of a national insecurity.

By now, I'm sure that many of you are very well aware of the racist incident that took place at the Valley Swim Club in suburban Philadelphia last month. Alethea Wright, the founder of Creative Steps, a summer camp dedicated to serving minority children and their parents in the Frankford/Oxford Circle area, was forced to do some hasty arrangements. Budget cuts had closed down their local pool and Ms. Wright had found another for the children at the Klein Branch of the Jewish Community Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sundays were then taken care of when the Valley Swim Club in Huntingdon Valley accepted $1950 from Creative Steps to allow 65 multiracial children to enjoy their pool.

However, on their first and only visit to the swim club, which is protected by a chain link fence limned by barbed wire, they did anything but enjoy it. According to the Creative Steps children and the supervising adults, all the white children left the pool either arbitrarily or at the behest of their parents when the darker-skinned children entered the water. White adults, their arms crossed, were overheard making remarks such as, "What are all these black kids doing here?" Others had said they wouldn't go back to the swim club, as if the area had been contaminated and rendered uninhabitable a la Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

A pool attendant had even come out and told the Creative Steps adults that minorities weren't allowed in the club and that they had to leave.

In a hamfisted "apology", the club's president John Duesler tried to put a positive spin on it to make everyone happy and wound up alienating everyone. The community organization's $1950 was refunded, the doors were padlocked and the City of Brotherly Love was revealed once again to be a fraud, a disingenuous product of its own tourist billing. Creative Steps then decided to sue the Valley Swim Club.

This audio clip on NPR yesterday asks the question to whether or not Creative Steps ought to sue the Valley Swim Club for impinging on their civil rights. Incredibly, Annette John-Hall, an African American journalist who'd written about the incident for, thinks that it's wrong to sue the club. She's certainly entitled to her opinion but her reasons against the lawsuit's legitimacy are alarming.

John-Hall's assertion that the Creative Steps people ought to let bygones be bygones seems to be rooted in her apparent belief that the civil rights movement is dead and has since ossified into history. While acknowledging that civil lawsuits were a legitimate form of grievance for effecting change within the system during the civil rights movement, John-Hall seems to be afflicted with a belief that the Civil Rights movement is dead or that it can rest on its hard-won laurels and allow this latest racial outrage to coast.

Yet the very fact that a white suburban swim club could be so insensitive to the needs and dignity of inner city children of color proves that racism didn't die at Augusta and that it will still rear its ugly white head. It untidily resurrects a whole host of issues, such as the permanent mindset of the despicable "separate but equal" Supreme Court ruling upholding segregation and reflexive, deep-seated loathing of people of color even sharing water with white people. Incidents such as that witnessed at the Valley Swim Club proves that there is still need for a civil rights movement whether or not Ms. John-Hall thinks it still exists.

However, it's easy to see how one could be mollified into thinking that the civil rights movement was made a victim of its own success. After all, we have an African American president, several powerful African American lawmakers on Capitol Hill (although only one very temporary example in the Senate) and African Americans make up some of the most successful, influential and respected members of the scientific community, academia and the humanities. In a way, the decline of the influence of the civil rights movement runs parallel with that of the anti-war movement. Several anti-war organizations such as Code Pink still exist and from time to time peace rallies pop up for a few hours yet we're still fighting two wars overseas with no end in sight. It ought to be obvious there's a continuing necessity for both movements.

In her own story, she'd quoted John Flynn, obviously a white club member, who'd suggested, "As far as I know, all we recommended was to change the time that [the campers] came, from the afternoons to a nonpeak time. We never recommended to disinvite them." Without even challenging Flynn, John-Hall quoted this guy who basically came right out and said, "Perhaps we should let them in only after all the white people have gone."

To play Devil's Advocate for a minute, club president John Duesler is by all accounts a pretty decent guy and isn't exactly noted for racist behavior. However, his clumsy pseudo-apology was intended to cover for and mollify the white club members who are obviously his bread and butter as well as the real victims in this. False reasons such as safety and pool capacity were brought up but it was telling that he referred to the children "changing the atmosphere and complexion" (emphasis mine) of the pool.

When faced with the choice of sticking up for his white-based bottom line or for the people of color who would've used his pool for just one day a week for one summer, Duesler tried to make everyone happy and wound up making no one happy. Even a reinvitation for the children has thus far has remained unaccepted. Yet it's obvious that the Valley Swim Club has been made the sole bad guy in all this when the club members are at least, if not moreso, as responsible for the abominable behavior as the club's staff.

To acknowledge and to protest an injustice in civil court is not to merely adopt a victim mentality. Whether or not one sues for money, filing a class-action civil lawsuit of this nature, one is doing at least two things: Shedding light on racism (and there was little if anything subtle about the racism that was aimed at these poor children) and standing up for one's civil rights.

John-Hall quoted Barack Obama when the president said that it's time for us to unclench our fists and to move on, which is very much in keeping with Mr. Obama's desire to keep the evils and crimes of the Bush administration away from the prying, prurient eyes of the American public. But I would submit to Mr. Obama and Ms. John-Hall that it's impossible to unclench our fists and move on as long as white suburbanites and other bigots across white America refuse to unclench their minds.


At July 17, 2009 at 9:40 PM, Anonymous Lisa G said...

Absolutely appalling that this would occur in this day and age...simply disgusting. I would have been one of those people saying 'WTF are you all doing?' and/or 'What is wrong with you people?'. But then again, I grew up in a small (30K) person town, and the only African Americans I saw were on the basketball team. I still remember walking into an all African American bar in town and being the only white person (besides my date) in the room. The music stopped and everyone stared at us as if we were Martians. Luckily my date was friends with several of the people in there, but it made for a strange experience, to say the least.

At July 17, 2009 at 9:48 PM, Anonymous Lisa G said...

Oh, btw, that was 30 years ago. I'm wishing and hoping it's better than that now.

At July 17, 2009 at 11:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those were children, and I do not think they deserve to be treated so horribly by adults. It really is the clientele of the club-the management was only trying to smooth ruffled feathers-BUT-sometimes you just gotta take a stand! The whole lot of them should be ashamed!

At July 18, 2009 at 3:03 AM, Blogger andygra111 said...

I grew up in the Philly suburbs in the fifties and sixties. "Swimming-Pool Racism" certainly existed and it doesn't suprise me that the patina of tolerance has been scratched to expose this fear once again. As a white guy, older now, often working with Anglos, as we're called in the Southwest, I am sometimes appalled by the jokes that are told presumably in confidence to another Caucasian. Lisa G's experience I also had and subsequently avoided. My family did not live in the wealthy exurbs of Colonial houses and expansive lawns that substitute for Southern plantations, at least in subliminal attitude. But the fear was still there. Fear=Afraid. Now I live in the Southwest and "it's" here, too. In my opinion, this is the Legacy of Slavery. No more, no less.

At July 18, 2009 at 9:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Racism is still pervasive in America in 2009. I read a diary on this subject at Daily Kos and the amount of folks commenting and hoping Creative Steps would not be seeking harsh punitive damages against the racist club was a bit....Revealing.

At July 19, 2009 at 11:01 PM, Blogger Fran said...

Bravo! Well said.


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