Today, a Black, American woman won a gold medal in swimming. This prompted a lot of discussion about the history of racism and swimming in the USA, and reminded me of something I think is worth sharing.
When I was a teen, I worked as a lifeguard. And one summer I worked at the city's "Formerly" segregated blacks-only pool. I say formerly in quotes because for all practical purposes it was still a blacks-only pool.
The city had two pools: A big, nice, well-maintained center-of-city pool. And a crappy, badly maintained pool near the poorer part of the city. While any resident could legally go to any pool they wanted, they both required an entry fee to get in, and the big nice pool had a bigger entry fee. Besides that, you'd have to travel a ways from the poorer neighborhood to get there. And guess what race the people in the poorer part of this city (with a LONG history of race segregation) tended to be?
Big city pool had two short diving boards, a high dive, a separate lap swimming pool, a separate family pool, a small grill / snack stand, etc. Little pool had a mostly broken diving board and a snack bar consisting of chips and candy bars and a soda machine.
So, I lifeguarded along with ONE other person (the big nice pool had 8 to 10 on duty), and our clientele was mostly young black boys and girls.
They'd arrive at the pool, stay about 30 minutes, get super rowdy and end up ignoring the guards and all attempts at discipline, and get kicked out. Every day. And when they'd refuse to be kicked out (a fun game for them), the guards were instructed to call the police on them. Repeatedly, we'd be told to call the cops. At first we would and they'd be driven away by the boys in blue.
This cycle repeated itself, with the kids getting more and more disruptive and the cops getting more angry at us calling them, and at the kids for them having to be there.
Then it changed.
I don't know what prompted us to start addressing things differently, but I think it's mainly hatred of our own bosses - our pool company paid us $4.25 an hour (minimum wage at the time) and treated us like crap. The "main manager" was a jerk and occasionally sexually harassed the (under-18) female guards. We hated the company.
So one day when the kids came in and we didn't want to deal with it anymore, we broke the cycle. We took the change drawer from the snack bar, and threw the whole contents into the pool, and told the kids that whatever they dredged back out of the pool they could use to buy snacks.
By my estimate, this cost the pool company about $10 in candy and chips. It kept the kids occupied for HOURS. And they were happy. They weren't bored, they used up a ton of energy diving after the coins, and they got to buy snacks that they could usually not afford to buy when they came.
That was the first day we had zero discipline problems, not to mention one of few where the police weren't called.
The next day we did it again. Same result. So we kept doing it, almost every day for the rest of the summer.
So yeah, technically we were "stealing" $10 a day from our company - hopefully the statute of limitations on that have expired in the last two decades. But I don't look at it that way - I think were investing that money.
We invested in a bunch of boys and girls who were already being shown that they were worth less, by the shitty state of the pool they were given to play in. By the way the company allowed their pool to have nothing to do compared to the nice city pool, so that they would be driven to mischief in their boredom. And by how the company wanted us to involve police in the antics of 12 year olds, when at the big nice pool we'd almost never call the cops for discipline, we'd just get several guards to kick someone out.
They didn't need discipline, they needed someone to offer them something fun to do.
We invested $10 a day to keep hundreds of dollars of taxpayer cost from having cops come deal with petty problems. And this was a CITY pool being privately managed. That investment was in the taxpayer interest.
The most important thing we invested in though, was that we treated the kids like we cared about them, not a nuisance. What I hope we told them was "Yeah, we get it, you're bored and wish you could afford the candy we've got behind the counter. We're on your side, and we'd rather you have a happy time while you're here than hold the line on a $0.75 snickers bar that the company bought for $0.10 in bulk."
I'm honestly not sure where I meant to go with this post, but I guess where I'm going with it is that a lot of the "problem" we had was that negativity was being met with negativity, and no one was offering anything positive to anyone. When we started being on the kids' side, we started forming positive interactions with them. Those led to good feelings, which led to empathy, which led to a good opinion of each other and giving one another benefit of doubt that we weren't just there to fill the role of "Angry lifeguard and troublesome kid".
In a lot of cases compassion, even if it comes at the cost of being on the wrong side of the law, produces MUCH better results than obstinately holding the line and trying to crack people into shape using force.
If you want to deal with racism, or fascism, or fear of terrorism, or pretty much anything else that's wrong with the world, I think compassion and care at the smallest level can break those cycles far more effectively than surveillance, police crackdowns, or any measure of imposition of order.
Edit: To wrap up this rambling story, as it relates to black swimmers - there's a history of racism in the USA and it involves keeping black people out of pools, or at least out of the nice ones. It's no surprise to me that it took this long to have a black gold medalist swimmer because, in my experience, my city wasn't interested in letting black kids have FUN at their pool. And god knows, if you want to stick to doing something long enough to become the world's best at that thing, you damn sure have to enjoy doing it.