Thursday, July 9, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 7:18 AM
One city is the site of a watershed moment during the Civil Rights Movement. It was in this city that Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—an interracial group of civil rights activists—died at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer, 1964. Coincidentally, this was also the city where Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 campaign for the White House, embracing a racially charged rhetoric of “states’ rights.” The historical legacy of this city stands as a testament to the violence, tragedy, and racism that epitomized the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960s.
The other city is home to the Liberty Bell. This city, colloquially referred to as the “city of brotherly love,” gave birth to the American Revolution. It was our nation’s first capital, the site of American Independence. This city carries a rich, celebrated history—a history rooted in patriotism, freedom, and lofty ideals of equality.
In which city did white patrons leave a swimming pool in protest as a group of young black campers entered? In which city were these young black children denied access to the open-membership “private” pool, even after paying the $1,900 membership fee?
I’ll give you a hint—it wasn’t in Mississippi.
This past week, The Valley Swim Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania revoked the membership of 60 black children from The Creative Steps Day Camp. Their reason? "There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club," said John Duesler, Club President. That’s not a paraphrase—it’s a direct quote, from a written statement no less. The racist vitriol of this Freudian slip (I don’t think he intended the literal connotation of “complexion”) goes well beyond the club’s discriminatory membership policy. Indeed, the racist logic of Duesler is emblematic of the prevalent, pernicious, dangerously appealing ideology of laissez-faire racism.
A new political culture has effectively barred the acceptance of 1960s era Jim Crow racism—a racist ideology grounded in biological explanations of black inferiority. However the fall of Jim Crow was accompanied by a more passive, yet equally problematic ideology of black disadvantage. The general public now accepts cultural explanations of black inferiority, citing blacks’ collective lack of mainstream values, norms, and behaviors as the source of their deprivation. This is exactly the rhetoric adopted by Duesler and The Valley Swim Club—a rhetoric rooted in the unfounded fear that these black kids simply won’t know how to act right.
This kind of blind discrimination is nothing new, nor is it uncommon, particularly in Northern cities. Segregation—be it explicitly enforced or implemented through proxies and euphemisms—is an everyday reality. Our neighborhoods are segregated. Our nightlife is segregated. Our schools are segregated. Our public beaches and parks are segregated. Economic enterprise and labor markets are segregated. This is not a new development—in fact segregation and racial inequality have been an ever-present facet of American political, economic, and social institutions since, well, as far back as my historical knowledge goes.
Segregation, racial inequality, and racist social policies are not phenomena relegated to the Deep South, nor are they relics of a distant past. Discrimination is embedded in lending practices, ingrained in residential choices, entrenched in the criminal justice system, and woven into the very fabric of our labor markets. The incident in Philadelphia sheds light on an everyday struggle for communities of color—a struggle that most certainly did not end on November 5, 2008.
Some may argue that we are living in a post-racial society. Some may argue that racial discrimination is a thing of the past. Some may argue that racism is fading.
Try making those arguments to the 60 campers of The Creative Steps Day Camp.