At first glance, it just seemed like a typical poster promoting swimming safety.
While visiting a pool in Salida, Colorado, a woman named Margaret Sawyer noticed a Red Cross pool safety poster showcasing diverse swimmers. But she observed one catch: Only white people displayed “cool” behavior and almost everyone behaving in ways that were “not cool” were people of color.
Sawyer told NBC affiliate KUSA she thought it was a mistake until she saw the same poster at another pool more than 200 miles away in Fort Morgan, Colorado, which prompted her to contact the pool’s management and later share the image online.
“I saw this one and I just kept thinking, ‘it looks like they’re trying to do something here that shows all kids together of all different backgrounds, but they’re clearly not hitting the mark,” Sawyer said.
The Red Cross has since issued an official apology on Monday, noting that it will discontinue producing the 2014 poster and that the image will no longer be featured on its website, app, or partner facilities.
But even as the Red Cross poster controversy dwindles, the racist legacy surrounding American public pools endures.
Racism is a major part of America’s swimming pool history
Swimming pools have always been spaces where social inequalities have played out. But as University of Montana history professor Jeff Wiltse wrote for the Washington Post last year, the nation’s swimming pool history is intimately tied to racism.
When the first public pools were established in America’s Northern cities at the turn of the 20th century, class prejudices fueled decisions of where municipal pools were built to keep out poor and working-class people, regardless of race. In the 1920s and ’30s, when pools were larger and men and women began swimming together, some major Northern cities used racial segregation tactics to prevent interactions between black men and white women.
“Southern cities typically shut down their public pools rather than allow mixed-race swimming,” Wiltse said. “In the North, whites generally abandoned pools that became accessible to blacks and retreated to ones located in thoroughly white neighborhoods or established private club pools, where racial discrimination was still legal.”
Physical violence and criminal charges were also common practices to keep segregation in place. In April 1950 in Pittsburgh, Nathan Albert — the secretary for the local communist club — was convicted of “inciting a riot” for allegedly trying to bring a mixed-race group to the local swimming pool two years prior.
In the 1950s, legal battles ensued. Between 1950 and 1955, the NAACP was involved in multiple anti-discrimination lawsuits for swimming pools after black patrons were denied access to swim at pools and beaches, including Isaacs v. Baltimore.
After three black children drowned in a local natural water swimming area, the NAACP brought the case and two others to the US District Court of Appeals. In light of Brown v. Board of Education, the court ruled in 1955 that segregated but equal facilities no longer sufficed. When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, the district court’s ruling remained unchallenged, setting a new legal precedent against racist swimming pool practices.
Nonetheless, racism at swimming pools still manifests itself in the 21st century. The Red Cross poster may seem like a harmless mistake in insensitivity, but the portrayal of black children being menacing at the pool plays into this legacy.
Making swimming pools more inclusive could be a lifesaver
The Red Cross poster may be a testament to well-intentioned campaigns gone awry. But those missteps have serious consequences for swimmers of color.
“The current state of affairs is unfortunate, and images like the one created and circulated by the Red Cross make things worse,” Ebony Rosemond, head of Black Kids Swim, told the Washington Post. “In connection with the lack of images showing African Americans excelling in swimming, the poster doesn’t make you feel welcome — it suggests to a black child that you’re not welcome here.”
According to a 2010 study by USA Swimming, 70 percent of black children and 60 percent of Hispanic children have little to no swimming ability compared with 40 percent of white children, which puts these children of color at a far greater risk of drowning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported in 2014 that black children ages 5 to 19 were 5.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than white children.
Unequal access to swimming facilities is one contributing factor. In the 1970s and ’80s, many cities halted plans to build public swimming pools or closed them altogether, which disproportionately impacted working-class communities, which were often communities of color, unlike their upper-class, predominantly white counterparts who had access to private pools.
Stigmatizing images also invite native consequences for communities of color. Many around the country were horrified last summer when a police officer was caught on video roughly handling a black teenage girl and pointing a gun at her peers in McKinney, Texas, after local white residents claimed the group caused a “disturbance” at the private neighborhood pool.
Tatyana Rhodes, 19, who lived in the neighborhood, organized the McKinney pool party event. Nonetheless, white residents were upset, and harassed the teens with racist statements, including telling the teens to go back to “section 8 housing.”
Not only did it appear to be a case of racial profiling, it was also a 21st-century reminder that black children are not allowed in these spaces. The fact that a grand jury recently refused to indict the officer of any wrongdoing only solidifies this point.
The Red Cross announced plans to work with a diversity advocacy group to rectify the situation. The step may help it become more inclusive. But one of the other more important consequences is that recognizing nonwhite swimmers may be more effective at saving lives than the original poster campaign.