By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
On June 29, 2009, a group of predominantly African American and Hispanic kids drove to The Valley Club in Pennsylvania to take a swim. They had already paid. They were part of a day camp called Creative Steps. It was a warm summer’s day, and the 65 kids eagerly entered the pool. But when they started swimming, they noticed other club members acting differently towards them. Some started taking their kids out of the water. Others muttered racial slurs.
“What are these black kids doing here? They might steal from us,” Marcus Allen, who was 12, told CNN what he heard other club members say.
After that day, Creative Steps was handed back their money. They were told not to come back, according to the AP. The Valley Club, situated “at the gated swim club, set on a leafy hillside straddling two overwhelmingly white townships,” reportedly banned them from going swimming. For explanation later, The Valley Club said they didn’t have enough lifeguards to watch all the kids, many of whom couldn’t adequately swim. However, earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice determined “racial hostility prompted club members to turn away the children.”
It’s a sad state of affairs, certainly. While there is some silver lining (part of the settlement includes $65,000 to formulate a “diversity council” consisting of various members of both groups to encourage collaborative events between them), it’s a disappointing reminder that across our nation’s swimming pools, racial discrimination occasionally exists.
Personally, I’ve seen this happen before. When I was an age grouper, one of my teammates was black. He happened to be one of the fastest swimmers in the country; no matter. He heard racial slurs. “Black people don’t swim,” he heard in school. He’d turn to confront the person, but often, it was just a whisper in a crowded hallway. Usually what they said was much nastier than anything I can write on this website.
This affected him. Sometimes he heard things on pool decks, while accepting his award, or before diving in. He’d reiterate what he would hear: “Some kid told me that black folks can’t be swimmers.” He’d then win his race in an eruption of furious arms and kicks, but can you imagine? Swimming is a difficult enough sport without dealing with racial slurs when you hit the water.
At the elite level, swimming is more diverse. This summer, a handful of people of different backgrounds qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim team, like Lia Neal, Cullen Jones, and Anthony Ervin. For example, Neal became the second woman of African American descent to qualify for the U.S. swim team. Jones continues to be the face of “Make A Splash,” the USA Swimming Foundation’s learn-to-swim initiative.
But this recent settlement in Pennsylvania reminds us that sometimes, at some pools, there are major problems.
"[The kids at Creative Steps] experienced something terrible and justice prevailed,” a civil lawyer named Gabriel Levin told CNN.
It shouldn’t take “being sued” to let kids enjoy the pool. It shouldn’t take the Department of Justice to allow a group of 65 kids to swim. It shouldn’t take a settlement of 1.1 million dollars to make adults and administrators realize that discriminating against people based on the color of their skin is, obviously, flat-out wrong (and horrible).
However, the message has been sent by the Department of Justice: Racial discrimination at our nation’s swimming pools will not be tolerated. Hopefully, going forward, pool administrators won’t need the justice system to intervene to allow kids of all ages, races, and backgrounds to enjoy the water, and simply swim.