Segregated Pools Live On

As you probably know, the latest high-profile case of police misconduct towards African-Americans thankfully didn’t involve the use of deadly force. But still, recordings of police officers in a suburban Dallas community brandishing weapons and brutally subduing teenagers who best as anyone can tell did nothing worse than crashing a pool party are getting some serious attention.

At the Atlantic, Yoni Applebaum supplies the essential context for this event with a brief history of swimming pools as a racial flashpoint and an atavistic redoubt for segregation.

At their inception, communal swimming pools were public, egalitarian spaces. Most early public pools in America aimed more for hygiene than relaxation, open on alternate days to men and women. In the North, at least, they served bathers without regard for race. But in the 1920s, as public swimming pools proliferated, they became sites of leisure and recreation. Alarmed at the sight of women and men of different races swimming together, public officials moved to impose rigid segregation….

As African Americans fought for desegregation in the 1950s, public pools became frequent battlefields. In Marshall, Texas, for example, in 1957, a young man backed by the NAACP sued to force the integration of a brand-new swimming pool. When the judge made it clear the city would lose, citizens voted 1,758-89 to have the city sell all of its recreational facilities rather than integrate them. The pool was sold to a local Lions’ Club, which was able to operate it as a whites-only private facility….

Today, that complicated legacy persists across the United States. The public pools of mid-century—with their sandy beaches, manicured lawns, and well-tended facilities—are vanishingly rare. Those sorts of amenities are now generally found behind closed gates, funded by club fees or homeowners’ dues, and not by tax dollars. And they are open to those who can afford to live in such subdivisions, but not to their neighbors just down the road….

Whatever took place in McKinney on Friday, it occurred against this backdrop of the privatization of once-public facilities, giving residents the expectation of control over who sunbathes or doggie-paddles alongside them. Even if some of the teens were residents, and others possessed valid guest passes, as some insisted they did, the presence of “multiple juveniles…who do not live in the area” clearly triggered alarm. Several adults at the pool reportedly placed calls to the police. And none of the adult residents shown in the video appeared to manifest concern that the police response had gone too far, nor that its violence was disproportionate to the alleged offense.

You have to be of a certain age, and probably from a certain area of the country, to personally recognize what Applebaum is talking about. But I can go him one better from my personal experience: from grades 9-12, at the end of the 1960s, I lived near an Atlanta suburban municipality (Smyrna) that had crazy bounderies. I soon learned that the city council constantly adjusted those boundaries to make sure no African-Americans lived within them. Why? To avoid integrating the muncipal pool. Eventually the fine solons running the town gave up. But I have to say on the several occasions I swam at the pool, nobody asked me where I lived, which was outside Smyrna.

I can also confirm that this is partly sometimes about class as much as race. In the 1980s and 1990s I once owned a home in a “planned community” in another Atlanta suburb, whose residents were about half white and half black, with a noticeable number of mixed-race couples. At a neighborhood association meeting I attended at some point, the committee running it–chaired by an African-American–voted to take down basketball hoops near the entrance of the neighborhood because the sight of kids playing hoops gave prospective home-buyers the wrong impression!

Sad sad sad.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.