July 10, 2009


(Photo by James Heaney, Philadelphia Daily News)

It seems like any time the opportunity comes up to have a real discussion about race in this country, to turn an awful situation into a teaching moment, it almost always gets reduced to this binary equation: Terrible Racist Bigots vs. Enlightened White Liberals.

So when I saw the well-meaning outcry against the racially-tinged ousting of a group of young Philadelphia kids from a suburban swim club, I thought to myself: Oh, here we go again.

I grew up in Philadelphia during a very troubled time. During the '60s, block-busting realtors resorted to abominable scare tactics to get white homeowners to sell, even resorting to middle-of-the-night phone calls: "You'd better get out now while your house is still worth something." There were gang fights and even a few deaths in the neighborhood.

My family wasn't one of the ones that left. My mother wouldn't dream of it, and she welcomed our new black neighbors. My brothers, however, were dealing with the changing neighborhood out on the street, where every pointless violent incident against one group was answered by another. ("West Side Story," only without the soundtrack.)

Understand, all the kids were feeling the tension. We couldn't go to the public swimming pool at the Kingsessing Rec Center that was an easy walk from our house, because it was in a black neighborhood and if we went there, we'd get harassed or even beaten up. So we walked almost three miles to the Finnegan Playground instead - a long walk on a scorching hot day for kids. It seemed to take forever.

When I saw this story in the news, I wondered why the day care program kids didn't go to the closest public pool. But then I thought, maybe it was one of the white pools and they didn't want the hassle. See, we still think that way.


Flash forward twenty years. I'm a single mom with two kids, and my mom is watching them while I'm at work. Part of the deal is that she spends the day with them at the local swim club.

One day, when I come to pick them up, I go to the office to reserve a barbecue pit for the weekend; I'd invited some friends from work for a cookout. The manager (who was also the mayor of the town where I lived) said, "You know you can't bring any coloreds in here, right?"

I was shocked. Speechless, really. I finally said, "As it happens, none of the people I invited are black." I left, shaking with anger. But I was also in a moral dilemma because I needed my mom's help and I knew she loved the pool. What to do?

I'm ashamed to say I did nothing. But it really bothered me, and a few weeks later, I wrote a column about it. (My parents and kids were confronted about it by other pool members.)

We live in segregated worlds, and on some level, that's by choice - whether we admit it or not. Most of us work with all kinds of people, but who do we socialize with in our private lives? We might look down our nose at a low-class neighbor who uses the N word, but maybe we wouldn't even think of going to certain bars and restaurants because there aren't any white people.

Are we ever quite as liberal as we like to think?

When you picked the place you wanted to raise your kids, did you choose a top school district that (just incidentally, of course) happened to be 98% white? Or, if you live in an integrated area, did you send your kids to private school "because they'll get a better education"? Deep down, were you relieved, thinking your kids were somehow safer? Ask yourself why.

Right now is the first time in my adult life that I haven't lived in an integrated neighborhood. Not by any intent, it just worked out that way - and sometimes I feel a little apologetic about it. And sometimes I hear neighbors say things I can hardly believe, because white people so often assume all white people agree with them. But I don't, and I let them know.

My kids went to majority-black public schools in our inner-ring suburb. It was a conscious decision by my husband and me; my Jewish mother-in-law, a retired Philadelphia school teacher, was upset and offered to send them to Catholic school instead.

"They'll be fine," we said. And mostly, they were. (Although now my grown kids tell me stories about how they were threatened and harassed by black kids because they had a Jewish last name.)

Until a few years ago, my best friend was black, and her family openly derided white people. "White people are crazy," her father always said. And even though I agreed, I'd still protest. "Hey, I'm right here," I'd say.

"Oh, Susan, you're not white," her family members would say. "You're one of us." But I wasn't. And even though I ate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with their clan, that didn't make me black, nor could it really let me understand the life they live. (Although I do know a lot about black women's hair issues.)

But I empathize, because I'm an outsider, too. And that's why I'd much rather sit down and have a discussion with the people from that swim club than to ridicule and shame them for their ignorance. Like Anne Frank, I do believe people are good at heart, and that these swim club members reacted to a perceived threat out of fear. Because I understand they're afraid, and I feel just as sorry for them as I do for the kids who were crushed by their bigotry.

Now, if you think the best way to deal with fear is to attack the people who feel it, well, I guess you won't agree with what I just wrote.

(And just as a postscript: The pool in question does have black members, and it's possible that class was at least as big a factor as race.)

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