The video of the incident has been viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube: police officers in McKinney, Texas, breaking up a pool party of mostly black teenagers, one officer pinning a black teenage girl in a bikini to the ground, and then pulling his gun on other teenagers.
The incident quickly became part of the ongoing national conversation about police tactics, use of force and race. But it has also dredged up memories of the United States’ long, fraught history with race and swimming pools.
Yoni Appelbaum has been writing about this in The Atlantic, and joined Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the history.
“Pools have really been a site of racial and class conflict in America as long as they’ve been around.”
“Pools have really been a site of racial and class conflict in America as long as they’ve been around,” Appelbaum said. “By the 1920s, we started to redefine pools as social sites, as places of leisure and recreation. Men and women used them together, and that’s when most of the racial restrictions were imposed in the north, mirroring the segregation that already existed in the American South.”
Appelbaum said that in the decades that followed, desegregation did not come easily.
“When the courts start striking down segregation and forcing the integration of these pools, many communities simply get rid of them,” he said. “They fill them in, they sell them off to private organizations. They’re not prepared to integrate the pools. Where the pools are successfully integrated, they’re integrated in name only. As black bathers enter the pools, white bathers leave.”
The gated community boom and the corresponding loss of public recreation facilities served to reinforce “the divides that are already there” between races and classes in American communities, Appelbaum said. It has also led to a loss of tax dollars and increased spending on homeowners association dues and private club memberships.
“Without the broad public support and broad public use that pools once had, it’s very hard for communities to build or maintain the kinds of facilities that once existed,” he said. “The community fragments.”
McKinney, Texas, fits into this larger trend, Appelbaum said. The city has a predominantly white gated community population west of State Highway 75, and a less affluent population on the other.
“What young people in McKinney know is that the nice pools are not universally available to all the residents of the city,” he said.
“The old tensions about the benefit of being able to define who does and does not belong in a community resurfaced at that moment.”
The events that unfolded in McKinney last Friday, Appelbaum said, were just another chapter in America’s long, complicated history with swimming pools.
“The old tensions about the benefit of being able to define who does and does not belong in a community resurfaced at that moment,” he said.
Appelbaum said his story for The Atlantic, “McKinney, Texas and the Racial History of American Swimming Pools,” struck a familiar chord with many of his readers.
“What I found with adult readers of all races, there’s a memory of this time, whether they grew up in a small town where they weren’t mixing with children of other backgrounds, whether they grew up in a town where they were denied access to these sorts of facilities, or whether they grew up in a town which had integrated facilities,” he said. “They look at the incident like the one that unfolded in McKinney and it reminds them both of how far we’ve come and how far we clearly have to go on these issues.”
- Yoni Appelbaum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics section. He tweets @YAppelbaum.