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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

July 13, 2009

Written by C.N.

Swimming Pools and Modern Day Segregation

So much for the Obama effect.

Many Americans seemed to think that Barack Obama’s victory to become our nation’s first non-White President represented the end of racism in America and that our society had finally moved past skin color as a marker of social hierarchy. Sadly, they were and continue to be wrong.

As many media organizations and blogs have reported and summarized in the MSNBC video below, a private club in suburban Philadelphia reneged on an arrangement to allow a group of Black and Latino children to use their swimming pool, with many White club member parents allegedly uttering racial slurs to the children:

Alethea Wright, director of Creative Steps, a summer camp for minority children, said the organization paid for weekly swim time at the pool. But during a trip there June 29 some of the children said they heard people asking what “black kids” were doing at the club, Wright said. . . .

Creative Steps, located in northeast Philadelphia, had contracted for the 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon, Wright said. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments. . . .

“Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded,” Wright said. “Only three members left their children in the pool with us.” Several days later, the club refunded the camp’s payment without explanation, said Wright. . .

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will immediately open an investigation into the actions of The Valley Club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, chairman Stephen A. Glassman said. . . . “Allegedly, this group was denied the use of a pool based on their race,” Glassman said. “If the allegations prove to be true, this is illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania.” . . .

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., issued a statement calling the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said he was looking into the matter.

My fellow blogger sociologist Jessie at RacismReview.com elaborates on some of the details of the incident and sums up the sociological context of this incident quite well:

It’s a good thing that there are laws in place that prohibit racial discrimination of this sort, and that people were outraged this happened, and that a U.S. Senator is stepping up to investigate and, at least potentially, take some action against these perpetrators of swimming pool racism.

Yet, it’s an appalling fact to realize that nearly fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, we are still grappling with the continuing significance of racism in public places. We are, apparently, still at a point where we’re having to investigate people for violating the prohibition against racial discrimination in public accommodations.

Think about these kids in Northeast Philly next time you hear someone use the phrase “post-racial.”

Seriously, this is 2009, not 1909, right?

Without doubt, the actual incident is pretty shocking and appalling — White parents pulling their children out of the pool once Black and Latino children began using it, allegedly using racial slurs against the non-White children, and then the club abruptly canceling their earlier arrangement without any apology or explanation.

These events by themselves are pretty clear violations of federal and state laws which prohibit racial and ethnic discrimination in public and private facilities and I hope the club is prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent possible. Incidents like this are completely unacceptable in American society.

But as a sociologist, I also find it interesting to observe the club’s subsequent explanation and “apology,” offered several days after the incident and only after it was bombarded with media coverage and the threat of criminal prosecution. Specifically, as the MSNBC article quoted above notes, the club’s officials denied that race was a factor in the club’s actions and rather, it was safety concerns and a lack of space.

Most recently, the club has offered to have the summer camp kids back, but only “as long as safety issues, times and terms can be agreed upon.” Nice try, but that just basically means that as long as club members have enough advance notice, they can stay away from the club on the day the summer camp kids use it. How magnanimous of them.

These club officials need to wake up and smell what they’re shoveling.

This line of thinking is an example of colorblind ignorance at its best (or would that be, at its worst?) — taking pains to deny that race was ever a factor in one’s actions and trying to pretend or convince oneself that you, your members, and your organization has any hint of racial prejudice at all. After all, that would be so 20th century and we’re living in a “post racial” society now, aren’t we?

The sad truth is, we are living in American society, one that is still highly racialized and one in which the misguided allure of colorblindness has instead blinded us to the fundamental racist sentiments that many individual Americans consciously or unconsciously still have, the social segregation that still divides us along color lines, and the institutional racial inequalities that allow such sentiments to exist.

The calendar may say it’s 2009 but apparently, the racial consciousness of many Americans is about a 100 years behind.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Swimming Pools and Modern Day Segregation" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2009/07/swimming-pools-modern-day-segregation/> ().

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