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Swimming in Texas: Legacy of racism still helps create American tragedies

As a teenager some 40 years ago, I spent the summer with an aunt in rural Texas. My aunt worked as the administrator of a local hospital in a small town. A former Army nurse, my aunt was a no-nonsense, capable woman, and widely admired for keeping the town's tiny hospital running. She lived on a quiet dirt road about a mile from the local public swimming pool, to which I took myself most days while she was at work. I was a competitive swimmer back then, and swimming was a big part of my life.

I never saw a sign that limited the town's pool to white people. Several years had passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so direct discrimination would have been illegal. I came to understand, though, that while I cooled off in the water or lounged on deck chairs on baking hot days, the black kids who sometimes congregated outside the pool fence were not allowed to come inside. I learned through whispers why they never approached the admission desk or made their way to the locker rooms. "They know we'll close it down," more than one person explained.

One day while taking a shortcut across a baseball field after a swim, I encountered two black teen boys about my age tossing a ball and taking swings. The field, surrounded by houses with wide front porches, was empty except for the three of us. I smiled and said hello as I passed by, and they returned my greetings. "Where you from?" they asked, since I was obviously new in town. "Alaska," I replied. They were predictably impressed. "Alaska! We've never met anyone from Alaska!" Soon I continued on my way, and they returned to their bat and ball.

By the time I reached my aunt's house minutes later, her phone had been ringing off the hook. She opened the door and drew me inside. In a voice of mock alarm she cried, "Young lady, what makes you think you can fraternize with the colored boys?!" She laughed as she spoke, signaling that it wasn't her concern she was voicing. "The neighbors, you know," she said, "you have to be more careful." That was all she said.

I got the message. I remembered how the old black man who helped my aunt with yard work never came to the front door. I remembered how a neighbor had stammered in disbelief, "They walked right in!" after a group of black girls followed her daughter into their house for a meeting of a newly-integrated high school club. And I remembered how as young children my friends and I had played in sprinklers throughout the hot Texas summers while black girls our age had stayed in sweltering cars, watching us, waiting for their mothers to finish cleaning our homes.

I wasn't present in McKinney, Texas, when a white police officer got agitated and physically violent when called to break up a pool party for a young black girl and her friends. I wasn't present when a white woman at the same pool began to punch a black teen girl. I can't bear witness to the role of race in either event. And I wasn't present in Ferguson or North Charleston, or Charleston during this week's unspeakable tragedy.

But to me, those who suggest race should be of little concern in evaluating these events haven't paid close enough attention to history. Those who point instead to rogue police officers, or imperfect victims, or isolated loners are ignoring painful truths. We can't escape our past, and we can't change things for the better, if we aren't willing to be honest with ourselves.

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Here are the sad facts I have had to accept.

First, I had more privileges and protections in a small Texas town as a young white visitor than young black residents knew to expect. Second, I accepted my status and enjoyed the pool anyway, enjoyed the sprinkler anyway, because it was easy and expected of me. And third, while I was swimming and splashing in the water, there were black kids who boiled in the Texas sun watching me, and they have lived ever since with those memories, with that message.

I can never know how it felt to be those young people, excluded because of my color. I can never right that wrong. But the most troubling fact of all? There are still loud voices in our country suggesting that it doesn't matter; that racism's legacy is a thing of the past that I needn't worry about it or seek to understand. There are still loud voices laying blame for the McKinney pool incidents and others like them on everything but race.

Barbara Hood was born in Texas and moved to Fairbanks with her family at age 10. Today, she is a retired attorney and small business owner in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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