Private Clubs, and Public Prejudice
On the one hand, racism is so deeply embedded in the history and structure of the United States, that it shouldn't be particularly surprising when a story emerges, indicating that indeed, said racism has bubbled to the surface yet again.
But on the other hand, sometimes a story finds its way into the public realm, which is of such a profoundly disturbing nature, that you can't help but do a double-take: the kind of story that makes you go, huh? What the hell did I just read? Like for sure you must have seen that headline wrong. Like you must have been teleported back in time fifty years or more, to a period when folks didn't even feel the need to pretend they were racially enlightened. Like you must be hallucinating, or perhaps this is a satire you're reading, maybe something from The Onion? And then you realize, nope, it's for real.
And so it was yesterday, when a swim club on the outskirts of Philadelphia made the news after expelling from their pool a summer camp group of approximately sixty kids of color from the city. Not because they had done anything wrong--no bad behavior, no inappropriate conduct, nothing like that, as they had just arrived and most of the children hadn't even had a chance to enter the pool yet--and not because they had crashed the private environs uninvited (the camp had paid over $1900 for the right to swim there once a week), but because, as club president, John Duesler explained in a letter: the kids would "change the complexion and atmosphere" of the club. Got that? The complexion.
Of course, Duesler, about whom I'll have more to say in a minute, insists that the decision wasn't racial. Yet several of the youth denied access to the pool overheard a white club member openly complaining about the arrival of the "black kids," and all but a few of the white children swimming when they arrived were yanked from the pool by their parents, in a move reminiscent of the 1950s, suggesting that the club's racism is not some inanimate institutional force, but a lived reality for many of its white members as well. One woman at the club, for instance, fretted openly that the black kids might "do something" to her child. Of course, because that's what fifth graders from the 'hood do: they roll out to the 'burbs, pretending to be interested in swimming, when really, the plan is to find some white kids and cut 'em the hell up, in some kinda pee-wee gang initiation ritual. Of course.
That the expulsion was racial is beyond dispute, or at least should be. The club knew how many kids were going to be there when they accepted the membership fee, so they can't claim they were overwhelmed by the size of the group, although they seem to be offering that as their excuse now that the story has gone public. And this excuse is one they offer, despite the fact that a mere twelve days before they expelled the black kids, the same club, in the same pool, hosted nearly 80 children (78 of whom were white), from four 6th grade classes from a local school. Apparently white children, even when they are part of a group that is almost one-third larger, magically don't take up as much space.
Sadly, to read the comments left underneath the story at the Philly area NBC affiliate's webpage, which was first to break the news, leaves one with the distinct impression that for a lot of white folks, there is no need for the club to devise a cover story. Rather, a disturbing number of white posters seem positively exultant that these children--who had done nothing wrong except, apparently, to be born and to live in North Philadelphia--were booted from the club.
To wit, among these postings, one finds regular and repeated reference to the "animals" from the city, others who claim that blacks don't care for their own neighborhoods, and so, presumably, a group of black children shouldn't be let into a white one, and comments to the effect that if blacks want to be respected (and not discriminated against) they must first "clean up their act." In other words, whites are entitled to view all black people, even 8 year olds, through the lens of presumed group pathology, all because some in the black community engage in undesirable behavior. By which logic, of course, we should also presume that all whites are corporate criminals, because of the actions of Ken Lay, or Bernie Madoff, or the Savings and Loan bandits from the 80s.
Or perhaps that all white men should be presumed serial killers because of Manson, Bundy, Gacy, or dozens of others, or pederasts, like the sick-ass high ranking staffer at Duke University who was advertising for people to come and rape his 5-year old adopted black child, as he had already done repeatedly.
Perhaps it would be fair to think all whites to be semi-illiterate, because of, say, George W. Bush, or Sarah Palin, or to insinuate that white boys are all sociopathic animal mutilators because, as with a recent case in South Florida, most of the whack jobs who butcher kittens end up being, well, ya know, white boys. Or perhaps that whites are inherently predisposed to cannibalism or that white females should be banned from teaching because of the threat they pose to their students: after all, well over a hundred white female teachers have been busted for preying upon underage kids in recent years, and indeed the perps have been white in over 93 percent of all known cases.
But of course, none of those who would defend their racism in the swim club case--and who would assure us it is "rational" to fear black kids--would find any of the above examples nearly as logical. This, despite the statistical and anecdotal evidence that could be brought to bear in each case to make sense of crass generalizations in those instances too. No, they reserve their "rational discrimination" for the dark-skinned. Indeed, to read their messages is to see racism in the raw. The kind of thing so many pundits have assured us is no longer a problem in America, now that we've entered the "post-racial" era of Barack Obama.
Oh, and speaking of which, here's the kicker: remember the above-mentioned club President? The one concerned about how the black kids might change the complexion of the place? John Duesler? Yeah, well, turns out, Duesler is no knuckle-dragging right winger. He's no Klansman. Actually, he was a supporter of President Obama, and helped coordinate a blood drive in town to celebrate the Presidential inauguration. Even worse, he's the chairman of Peace-Action Philadelphia: a collection of presumably progressive and even leftist types. This is what I speak of as Racism 2.0 in my book, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama: the kind of racism that allows some whites to vote for Obama, and to carve out exceptions for those black and brown folks who make us comfortable, but to maintain fundamentally hostile views towards the larger communities of color from which these exceptions come. In other words, the kind of racism that says, black folks are fine, so long as they went to Harvard Law, speak a certain way, dress a certain way, and pander to our tastes. But for the rest of y'all, oh hell no.
In light of this latest incident, let me make the following points, and let me make them in the clearest terms possible:
1. I bet'not hear one more Northerner lecture me, ever about the South again. We know perfectly well our history down here. 'Bout time you get clear on yours. This wasn't Philadelphia, Mississippi partner, it was the city of brotherly-frickin'-love, so you and Rocky had best go figure it out, while the rest of us watch for a while. And for y'all in Boston, and Bensonhurst, and Greenwich-damn-Village, feel free to join in. Let us know what you learn about yourself. We got phones down here now, and even, occasionally, internet access, so give us a holler when you come up with something noteworthy.
2. I bet'not hear one more white liberal act like racism is the province of the right. Yes, racism itself is a decidedly reactionary philosophy, but it's one that has long been embedded in the white psyche, and white folks' worldview. As Joe Feagin explains in his newest book, the white racial frame has long influenced how white Americans, irrespective of broader political views, view black and brown folks, and this latest incident only demonstrates that with a vengeance. It is the white racial frame that frames, pun very much intended, blacks--even children--as pathological, socially dysfunctional, likely to misbehave, and unworthy of the opportunities enjoyed by whites. It is the white racial frame that serves to rationalize every injustice done to persons of color, no matter how blatant.
And is that white racial frame which must be thoroughly challenged, exploded, destroyed, eradicated, before this nation can ever hope to achieve racial equity, or even the most rudimentary levels of social justice. So for those nice white liberals who thought voting for Barack Obama was gonna be their get-out-of-jail-free card the next time somebody brought up the subject of racism--sorta like a modern day version of "some of my best friends are black"--think again.
Oh, and finally, for those who insist on changing the subject with regard to this pool story, and insisting that "well, ya know, it is a private club and so they can do whatever they want," you miss the point, and miss it quite badly. First, if a private club advertises memberships to the public, as the Valley Club did, there is an open question as to just how private it actually is. It may indeed be far less so than many claim, and may be bound by civil rights laws just as surely as a municipally owned facility would be. But more to the point, it doesn't matter. This is not an issue about the right of the club to be racist. It is a question about whether it is right for them to be such. One may have the right to do lots of things. I have the right to stand on a corner and shout racial slurs at passersby of color, I suppose. I have a right to publish hate literature. I have a right to join the Klan. In short, I have a "right" to be as racist as I wanna be. But if I decide to do any of those things, you have the right, and more--the obligation--to call me an asshole. And a racist asshole at that. And to make my life miserable.
So let us exercise our rights, and do just that to the folks at The Valley Club. You can reach them via e-mail at: email@example.com. Or you can call them at: 215-947-0700. Their voice mail was full last time I checked (for reasons I think I can imagine), but at some point they'll clear it out, at which point we should fill it up again. Or, if you're white and feeling really creative, perhaps you can pay for a temporary membership and then go swimming. Just make sure to drink a lot of water before you go, and all go together. And then get in the pool, and then, well, I think you know the rest. It would be the world's first piss-in,* and it would serve them right.
* I cannot take credit for the piss-in idea. This concept is borrowed, lovingly, from long-time social justice and antiracist activist/educator, Sharon Martinas, to whom all praise is due for her creativity and sense of humor in the face of injustice: a critical virtue in difficult times.
Tim Wise is the author of several books. His most recent is "Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama. <http://www.citylights.com/book/?GCOI=87286100273610> " published in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books, www.citylights.com <http://www.citylights.com> . He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com> .