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The Great Philadelphia Swim Club Fiasco: Racism or Overreaction?

July 17, 2009

Nearly everyone in the Western Hemisphere knows the story by now, but let me summarize it for those who might have been vacationing, comatose or preoccupied with the Great Recession for the past week.

In Huntingdon Valley, Pa., a middle-class suburb just beyond the Philadelphia city limits, 65 mostly black and Hispanic day-campers descended upon the Valley Swim Club and plunged into the welcoming turquoise waters of the club’s pool.

The club members, it turned out, weren’t quite as welcoming. Several concerned parents promptly yanked their offspring out of the water. Snide comments were overheard; a few club members wondered aloud what “all those black kids” were doing in their pool.

Club president John Duesler quickly canceled his organization’s contract with the day camp, citing safety issues: namely, overcrowding and an insufficient number of lifeguards. Fair enough. Then Mr. Duesler proceeded to utter the lamentable word-fart heard ’round the world: “There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club…”

Poor Duesler. By all accounts a decent and unprejudiced man, he’s been inundated with thousands of hate messages since he opened his jaws and inserted his foot. (Joe Biden can probably feel his pain.) The director of the day camp, Alethea Wright, is threatening to sue, claiming that her campers were “permanently scarred” by the incident. The contrite club board offered to renew the contract, whereupon Ms. Wright essentially told them, “Thanks but no thanks.”

So are we looking at an ugly vestige of Jim Crow, alive and well in Obama’s “post-racial” America? Millions of inquiring minds seem to think so. I think the answer is a little more complicated.

First, let me confess that I belong to a swim club.  A Philadelphia swim club. I go there to cool off on a sultry afternoon before dinner, unwind and swim half a dozen leisurely laps to placate my middle-aged circulatory system. 

Let me also confess that if I were swimming my laps and suddenly saw 65 exuberant grade-school kids leap into the pool, I’d be alarmed. I’d be alarmed even if they were certifiably Nordic in appearance. No swimmer wants to deal with the prospect of colliding willy-nilly with young bodies thrashing about in the water. I’ve collided with kids when there were no more than a dozen of them in the pool. Swimming my laps in the presence of sixty-five kids, I’d have no choice but to collide with them.

I’m sure the members of the Valley Club experienced a similar wave of alarm when they saw the horde of day-campers engulf their pool. But here’s the million-dollar question: were they a little more alarmed because that horde happened to be mostly black? I’d be surprised if the answer was no.

Many of us middle-class burghers, having been conditioned to believe that black neighborhoods are sinkholes of squalor and violence, instinctively put up our guard when we encounter copious numbers of African Americans. It’s an unfortunate response, and a primitive one, but it’s an authentic human response just the same. For that matter, I suspect that a swarm of 65 white kids might touch off a racial spark in the unlikely event that they converged on a mostly black swimming pool. We’re still not totally at ease with race, even in the Age of Obama.

Did the Valley Swim Club — and the unfortunate Mr. Duesler — deserve all the acrimony, the torrent of nasty publicity, the threat of lawsuits? Probably not. Their biggest mistake was agreeing to host the day-campers in the first place. They simply didn’t think about the consequences of adding 65 vigorous young bodies to their pool. Their second biggest mistake was failing to inform their members about the arrangement. If I’m paying to belong to a pool, I want to be able to swim in it. Not just hop around in the water, dodging bodies.

But wasn’t the Valley Club engaging in blatant racism, you ask? How can a self-styled moderate defend a recreational facility that expelled black kids from its grounds? Here’s why: the Valley Club also canceled its contracts with two other day-camps. (We didn’t hear about this part of the story in the worldwide news coverage.) Those two day-camps happened to be overwhelmingly white.

So no, I don’t think the Valley Club and its board should be dragged through the legal system and subjected to a kind of institutional sensitivity training. But I’m still left feeling a little uneasy about the whole overblown incident. I’m uneasy about the way some of the club members reacted to the black kids in their midst. I’m uneasy about Ms. Wright’s eagerness to sue the club, and about her certainty that the kids were “permanently” scarred. (How does she know the scarring is permanent unless she can ask them fifty years from now?) 

Still, I feel sorry for all those young day-campers who found themselves abruptly expelled from paradise. I hope they don’t think of their expulsion as a racial slight, but I’m afraid it’s already too late.

I guess it troubles me that race is still such a hot-button issue in America, all these many decades after the civil rights breakthroughs of the 1960s. Sometimes I wonder if the only permanent solution is to intermarry, generation after generation, until we’ve created a nation of Obamas. We could do worse.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Dudah permalink
    July 20, 2009 10:05 pm

    I follow everything that was said and agree with most – I do wonder about the this statement and why it was lost in the above insightful discussion ??
    *** Then Mr. Duesler proceeded to utter the lamentable word-fart heard ’round the world: “There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club…”
    It is that comment, and the need to categorize children as “black/white/brown/purple” rather than a simple statement “I paid my money to swim and I can’t” – that cause me to still linger and pause a little longer before I sing Kumbaya.

  2. July 20, 2009 10:58 pm

    The sad thing is that Mr. Duesler didn’t intend to create a racial brouhaha; his unfortunate (EXTREMELY unfortunate) reference to “complexion” was simply a comment on how all those kids would make the club seem more like a crowded public pool rather than a quiet oasis for swimmers… and of course he cited safety factors, too. I think that’s all legitimate. But the comments and actions by a few of the parents at the club reflect a deeper bias. Who knows… I might have reacted the same way if I saw 65 inner-city kids jump into the pool at our swim club. I’d definitely wonder what they were all doing there, simply because it would be a radical departure from business as usual. So in short, I don’t think the club (or the president of the club) should be faulted, except for not thinking ahead when they OK’d the use of their private pool by a day camp. But yes, the incident reveals that a lot of us are still prejudiced, at least in subtle ways.

  3. Nick Mclean permalink
    July 21, 2009 9:42 am

    This is to Rick Bayan. You failed to mention Duesler inviting the kids back. If he is concerned about safety and overcrowding, why did he invite them back? We have to be sensitive and realistic. Do you think its okay to say the “completion” of the kids would affect the club?
    I was at the club and the only people in the pool at that time were kids playing so forget about adults doing laps and all that.So your comment “I want to be able to swim in it. Not just hop around in the water, dodging bodies.” is not acceptable.
    I was shocked when I went home and heard that on the news. Deusler is now using us, the members to cover his mistake
    Just put yourself or your kids(If you have any)in those poor kid’s shoes….

  4. July 21, 2009 3:24 pm

    Nick: It’s great to hear from an actual eyewitness to the incident! I’m sure Duesler’s invitation to the kids (to return to the pool) was simply a desperate act of damage repair — especially given all the negative publicity generated by the incident. My big question is why he would have OK’d the contract with the predominantly black day camp in the first place, when the club had already canceled contracts with two other day camps. He had to know that the lifeguard staff was inadequate.

    The unfortunate “complexion” gaffe had to be nothing more than a poor choice of words; if he were a racist, do you think he would have been dumb enough to be that blatant about it? I think he just meant that the overcrowding would create an unpleasant atmosphere at the club. I’ve heard that he’s a decent guy who would go out of his way to help minority kids. Any personal insights about the man?

    And yes, I do feel sorry for the kids who got evicted from the pool; I said that much in my column. But I really don’t think it was a racially motivated incident on the part of the club. A few of the mothers were heard to utter some vaguely racist remarks (“What are all those black kids doing here?”) and that’s a shame, even though I can understand their concern. The club really should have notified the members that they were planning to invite the day camp to use the pool.

    Anyway, thanks for responding. If you have any more light to shed on the incident, please feel free!

  5. Nick Mclean permalink
    July 22, 2009 3:59 pm

    Rick: So you want to tell me Duesler was desperate and thats why he invited those kids back? If the life guard staff were inadequate so be it. He is rather putting them in danger by inviting them back.

    The fact of the matter is we were informed not to do any interviews by the club and that makes me wonder. I’ve been a member of the club for quiet sometime now and I just dont know. I think the club or Duesler should explain why those other 2 camps were cancelled (I wouldnt want to use cancelled).
    Duesler is a decent guy but shouldnt give in to some members of the club. I was at the meeting and had to leave because of the way some white members just like myself were ranting on and on. My kids go to school and in the same class with black kids so its very sad for them to see what is happening. My son asked me why Mr. X (who is an aquaintance from the club) is telling him not to swim with….

    I’m also upset because My own club is not forth coming with everything that happened so I can imagine what the president of that day camp is feeling right now.

    Is time we have to wake up in America and move on, and stop defending people we dont know, and hope for us all to change our attitudes. There is a saying a few bad apples…..

  6. July 23, 2009 5:23 am

    Nick: Thanks for the additional insights. The picture I get is that some club members were genuinely prejudiced (and not just because of the sheer number of kids jumping into the pool). So they put Duesler, a non-racist, in the awkward position of having to make excuses. It’s a shame that those club members reacted like old-time bigots; I can certainly understand how there would be hurt feelings among the kids.

    If I were a member of the club, I’d complain not because the kids were black, but because there were so MANY kids — and that the club didn’t inform us in advance about the contract with the day camp. Seems like they need to improve their communications.

    Thanks again… I hope the commotion dies down and that the club can invite underprivileged kids in the future (maybe not so many next time) without causing an uproar.

  7. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 9, 2010 5:10 am

    Loose Loose, do nothing, yuppy whites yell at you, you loose job? Kick them out, well, Just say you don’t want a bunch of kids in the pool. If need be lie and say they peed in it, that’d either shut people up or, well, make’em pissed. At least he did something about a situation, I know I wouln’t want to be in a pool with 65 anything, (silent monks, maybe.) Unfortunatly, that something should have been prepare the pool in advance for a horde of children. Increase chlorine levels, lifguards, tell yuppy whites (who probably have one black friend each…) that they might not want to be there. Oh well, hindsight is 20/20

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