The Great Philadelphia Swim Club Fiasco: Racism or Overreaction?
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.