The rightful celebration of the accomplishments of Neal, Jones, and Ervin should not cloud the persistent inequality visible within America’s pools. Just as the election of Barack Obama did not produce justice and equality for every person of color, the ascendance of these three Olympians doesn’t wash away this history; nor does it erase America’s swimming color line. Whereas 60 percent of white children are water safe, only 30 percent of black and Latino children know how to swim. It is therefore not surprising that black children are three times as likely as white children to drown.
Evidence of a history of exclusion and segregation, alongside the stories of black swimmers like Jones and St Augustine, Lia Neal and swim-ins, and Anthony Irvin and the Valley Swim Club. To celebrate their accomplishment is not evidence of a new chapter in American racial history but instead a reminder of the important work yet to be done.
The 2012 Olympics is also a reminder of how change, and how the walls of segregation and racial violence come down through action, through resistance, and through a commitment to inclusion. Whether in the courts or engaged in swim-ins, activists have fought to break down the walls of swimming segregation.
This fight against racial and class-based inequality continues today. Lia Neal’s success illustrates the importance of community investment in the very infrastructure that not only produces great athletes, but artists, scientists, and thinkers. During appearance on Melissa Harris Perry, swimming legend Donna DeVarona emphasized the importance of development and investment in the continue struggle against the swimming color line:
Well, when you look at Lia Neal. I grew up — my adulthood has been in New York. There was a group of us that decided we needed a 50- meter pool in New York City, because we wanted to produce Olympians. And the idea was that public and private funds would support the asphalt green project. So, you know, corporations coming in by a time that opens it up. So, those of higher economic privilege can work together with those that — maybe couldn`t afford the pool or the training. And so Lia Neal is our first product, our first Olympian that out of the asphalt green project. So, it`s that old statement, build it, they will come. We always felt African-Americans would do well in the sport, but it`s been a middle class, upper class sport and when desegregation happened, we closed all those big pools. I made my Olympics at Astoria pool which was a park pool and they put the 50-meter course in. Those pools are close all around the country so, where are you going to learn to swim? Where do you get that option?
Cullen Jones, who has worked tirelessly with the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make A Splash” initiative, further reveals how the Olympics are not just a pause for celebration but a reminder for action. According to Mark Anthony Neal, “Jones has been dutiful in translating his relative fame and visibility into efforts to encourage safe swimming among Black and Latino/a youth.”
Hopefully his success and that of Neal and Ervin will inspire others to further tear down the walls of segregation and inequality, making swimming accessible to all.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness was just published by SUNY Press in May of 2012. You can follow him on Twitter@drdavidjleonard