The Urban Grind

Segregated Swimming Pools


Yesterday was the first official day of Spring. For many of us spring means busting out bathing suits and hitting the pool. If you’re like my family, with the arrival of the first signs of warm weather and the promise of long summer days spent in the humid sun we sign the kids up for swimming lessons. As a child I fondly remember the breezy northern California summer heat waves where I honed my freestyle strokes and the bobbing rhythm of the breast stroke. Nothing else welcomes summer better than achieving suction on your eyeballs from steamy goggles or preparing to bounce along the lane line bumpers attempting the backstroke for the first time. Coconut SPF 30 is an alluring aromatic reminder of the waves gently lapping against the side of the public pool.

If you’re white.

White Americans are twice as likely to know how to swim as black Americans… The consequences of this can be deadly: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children aged five to 14 are three times more likely to die from unintentional drowning than their white counterparts. (The Guardian)

Swimming lessons were an expectation in my childhood home. Learning to swim was a rite of passage emphasizing the future of summer adventure more so than aquatic safety. Finding comfort in salty, fresh, or chlorinated water was assumed in my early years. Why wouldn’t it be? Isn’t that how it is for everyone?  Looking back on my swimming lessons in the Washington High School pool I see how white the water was. I never gave it a second thought that, in such a diverse context, the vast majority of sunburning students were white.

Pools are bulwarks of segregation.

Swimming pools have long been contested spaces where Americans express social prejudices that otherwise remain publicly unspoken. Unspoken social prejudice is just as loud as vocalized racism and south Chattanooga is no exception to this embarrassing reality. The pool at the local rec center that BCC calls home offers swimming lessons at an incredibly affordable price. Subsidized by the city it is an opportunity provided to hopefully shift the to the middle regarding aquatic equity.  Ironically, there is little diversity in its heated waters.  The same lines that divide the lanes continue to divide the neighborhoods.

Throughout the year at the South Chattanooga Youth & Family Development Center the programming, facility use, and event attendance is primarily black. Residents from Alton Park make good use of the remarkable facilities at the center. As someone who spends most of my time at the center I can corroborate that it is completely underutilized by white families from the adjacent, gentrified neighborhood of St. Elmo. Except for spring time swimming lessons. When swimming lessons open for registration it’s like a late spring snow flurry - white families descending upon the front desk blanketing the counter with registration forms and checks.

"Where did all these caucasians come from?" I asked myself the first time I experienced spring in south Chatt. The universal response I received from staff and community members alike reinforced my surprise, “They only use the pool.” These neighbors don’t have to fly confederate flags or call people n****** to expose the segregation that exists. These white families don’t have to vocalize their discomfort in sharing space with black neighbors for the reality of their unspoken social prejudice to exist. It’s there. It’s real. It’s shameful.

Why do swimming pools bring out the worst in people?

Part of the answer has to do with the uniqueness of swimming pools as physical spaces. They are visually and socially intimate. Swimmers gaze upon one another’s nearly naked bodies, lie in the sun next to one another, navigate through crowded water and flirt. This type of contact and interaction piques social anxieties and exposes the lack of trust and understanding between people of different social classes.

For these reasons, swimming pools serve as useful barometers of social relations. If we as a nation want to know how we relate to one another across social lines, how we structure our communities socially, and how we think about people who are socially different from ourselves, just look at our swimming pools. The answer will be obvious. (The Washington Post)

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