white pools
The Witness

White Pools, Black Lives, and the Sacrament of Baptism

John Richards

In the movie “Life,” Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence walk into a restaurant in the deep South and request two items: coffee and a slice of pie. The female employee at the counter offers them a reminder: No Coloreds Allowed. They had entered segregated space—a space that gave her the legal right to refuse the two black men service.

“No, these are whites only pies,” the employee says. To which Lawrence’s character asks, “Well, do you have any Negro pies?” Ultimately, the men were chased from the store by that same employee, wielding a shotgun.

“Life” is set in the deeply segregated South, but considering our culture today, has much changed? Over the past several years, we’ve seen another sacred white space protected. Who can forget the viral video at a Texas pool party where a police officer pulled a gun on black teens? This week, a white Memphis woman was fired from her job at an apartment complex after calling the police on a black man who was wearing socks while swimming in a pool. In another incident, a South Carolina woman was filmed striking a black teenager at a community pool. She allegedly told the teen and his friends that they didn’t belong at the pool. One could surmise what she was getting at. This was a Whites Only pool.

Nothing New Under the Sun

The idea of White Pools isn’t a novel concept in America. It has been well documented that one of the most racially charged spaces in the South during the Civil Rights era was local community pools. Who can forget the iconic image of motel manager, James Brock, pouring acid into a pool where black protesters staged a swim-in (the pool version of restaurant sit-ins)?white pools

Many white people have always protected spaces they deem sacred. The pool is no exception. Though public pools were eventually racially desegregated as a matter of law, local pools still served exclusive mono-ethnic people groups.

In one “desegregated” Pittsburgh municipal pool, a sign read “No dogs or niggers allowed.” The idea of having black men (who apparently posed a threat by their very existence) interacting with women in this kind of space was troubling for some. The same narrative told on the auction blocks about black men has always played itself out most clearly in this space. If you want to see the state of racial affairs in America, visit your local public pool. Unfortunately, not much has changed. It’s just that white patrons have substituted acid for 9-1-1 for blacks who “don’t belong.”

Water Baptism

The unfortunate reality in the U.S. today is that the idea of the sacred, exclusive nature of white pools has extended to (or has remained in) the baptismal font. The Witness President, Jemar Tisby, has written here before about the wilderness wandering of black Christians who have left predominantly white evangelical spaces in the quiet exodus highlighted in a New York Times article.

Churches today are just as racially polarized than they were in the 1960s. And things are getting worse with the re-definition of Evangelicalism and political issues impacting matters of faith. The story behind the baptism numbers of large, white denominations is telling. Those numbers, for all practical purposes, communicate one thing: Whites Only Baptisms. Racial division in American churches isn’t solely about worship and preaching style. There’s a more significant issue at play. Many of the things white evangelicals say (or remain silent about) have indirectly communicated a Whites Only Baptisms message that flies in the face of authentic Gospel community.

If I’m honest though, my concern is that a perpetual state of wilderness wondering for black Christians doesn’t move us through to the “every tribe, every nation” vision of Revelation. In fact, the logical next step should be the Promised Land, no? Our “Promised Land” heritage necessitates that we think through what being a black Christian looks like in 2018 (and beyond).

In the Old Testament, the wilderness was never meant to be permanent. And it shouldn’t be for black Christians either. Because we believe Scripture, we know the wilderness is not our destination. But neither are the White pools of historical Evangelicalism in the United States.

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