Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Refilling the ‘pool’ of public good

Published: 5/14/2021 10:46:06 AM

For almost four decades, I have read about the social, political and economic impacts of slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow years, the civil rights movement, the mass incarceration of Black men and women, and the ways racism has mutated, adapted and remained powerful and virulent in subtle and overt ways.

Like so many others, I know that for centuries racism has permeated this country’s criminal justice system, health care system, banking and finance systems, education, housing and home ownership, public transportation and the media. What I never realized was how the history of racism could also be tracked by studying the history of public swimming pools.

In her fine and revealing book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper,” Heather McGhee details how, in the early 20th century, there was a surge in the construction of public swimming pools in cities and towns across this country. Communities tried to outdo each other by building the largest and most elaborate swimming pool. Thousands of public pools — some larger than football fields — were built in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. For decades, tens of millions of Americans enjoyed swimming in these public pools annually.

However, those millions of swimmers were white.

McGhee tells the story of a 13-year-old Black boy named Tommy Cummings who, in 1953, drowned while swimming in Baltimore’s Patapsco River. Tommy and his friends were forced to swim in the dangerous waterway because not one of the city’s seven public pools allowed interracial swimming.

In the 1950s, when city officials were pressured to integrate the pools, there was a swift and brutal response from white people who began policing the pools. Through verbal intimidation and violence, white men and women attempted to keep “public” pools available to whites only. Although built with tax dollars from both white and Black residents, swimming pools were a public resource that white people sought to keep for the exclusive use by white people.

Because white people in cities and towns with large and popular swimming pools could not tolerate the idea of sharing a swimming pool with people of color and created such an vicious uproar, elected officials in countless cities chose to close the public pools — once the pride of their communities — rather than integrate them. Closing the pools meant that no one could swim. Many white people preferred that rather than allowing Black people to have access to the pools.

During the 1950s, public pool after public pool was drained and cemented over. Black people and poor white people were left with nowhere to swim. But wealthy people had an option — they had private swimming pools installed in their own backyards.

The draining of public pools gave rise to an explosion of swimming pools constructed in private backyards. It also ushered in the era of private pool clubs and park associations which attracted, catered to, and allowed white members only. In 1971, draining public swimming pools to avoid integration received the official blessing of the Supreme Court.

When Heather McGhee tells the story of segregated public swimming pools and how, when “threatened with integration,” pool after pool was closed, she is drawing on the work of Jeff Wiltse and his book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.”

Stunned by the stories in “The Sum of Us,” I purchased and read “Contested Waters,” and found the book startling in its detail and shocking in its revelations. I had not known about the extraordinary measures that white Americans employed to keep Black people from swimming in “their” public pools.

McGhee and Wiltse detail how personal and institutional racism has caused Black people to suffer in immeasurable ways over centuries. Both authors also explain how racism has diminished, restricted, and distorted the lives of white people.

Years ago Harvard professor Charles Willie wrote, “What’s good for the minority is good for the majority, but the reverse is rarely true.” Public swimming pools were good for the minority and for the majority. Draining the pools was a loss for everyone. But rich people had another option — an option unavailable to poor people, white and of color.

McGhee writes that the draining of public swimming pools is an example of the “zero-sum paradigm” that dominates many white people’s thinking. The zero-sum paradigm is predicated on the belief that if Black people gain anything, white people lose everything. According to McGhee, “The old zero-sum paradigm is not just counterproductive; it’s a lie.”

Progress for people of color does not mean a loss for white people. As McGhee argues, zero-sum thinking must be challenged and rejected — the goal is to achieve what she calls a “solidarity dividend” rooted in the sure knowledge that we truly do need each other.

McGhee writes, “ ... the quickest way to get to a solidarity dividend is to refill the pool of public good for everyone. The plutocrats have always known that solidarity is the answer that the sum of us can accomplish far more than just some of us.”

Returning to the image of public swimming pools drained and cemented over, McGhee states, “Refilling the pool will require us to believe in government so much that we hold it to the highest standard of excellence and commit our generation’s best and brightest to careers designing public goods instead of photo-sharing apps. When we do, the potential is boundless.”

What is essential is that we listen deeply to the experiences and insights of people most affected when pools are drained, that white people reject the lie of zero-sum thinking that we have been fed and instead embrace the “We” in “We the people.”

It is striking to me that the history of public swimming pools could hold so many lessons about oppression and exclusion, and inspire in me renewed efforts to listen, include, and collaborate.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.


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