The Valley Swim Club of Huntington Valley Discrimination Controversy: The Racial, Economic, and Legal Implications for African-Americans and Latinos – By Joseph Karl Grant

Disclaimer: The Widener Journal of Law, Economics & Race, in the interest of contributing to full and efficient scholarly exchange, does not warrant nor take responsibility for inaccuracies in the text nor citations of the commentaries we have accepted for publication.


Joseph Karl Grant*


Over a century ago, writing in 1903, preeminent sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, in his seminal work the The Souls of Black Folk wrote the following: “…[T]he problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”[1] In November of 2008, the election of the nation’s 44th President, Barack Obama, marked a monumental shift in race relations in this nation.[2] In the minds of many social commentators, President Obama’s election as the first African-American President represented the United States’ entry into a “post-racial” society.[3] In the minds and mentality of a number of Americans, and social commentators, President Obama’s historic election constituted a near-religious absolution of close to 400 years of racial sin, discrimination, strife, and division in this nation.  In the era of Obama, we are led to believe that race does not matter anymore.

Indeed, if you believe what you are told, race holds no significance in our nation.  Unfortunately, during the summer of 2009, the shameful and patently racist controversy that occurred at the Valley Club of Huntingdon of Valley, in suburban Philadelphia, involving white club members complaining about young largely African-American and Latino swimmers and summer campers in their swimming pool served as a lightning rod to remind us all that race still matters in the United States of America.  In September of 2009, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission found that probable cause existed to believe that a racial motive existed to explain why children from the Creative Steps day camp were not invited back and their payment to swim was refunded without explanation.[4] The Valley Club of Huntingdon Valley incident transported our nation back in time fifty (50) to one hundred (100) years ago to a mindset of Apartheid and segregation reminiscent of the blatant racism of the Jim Crow era, that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was designed to dismantle and redress.  The Valley Club incident has forced us to reenter the stagnant pool of race discrimination and exclusion in this nation that keep African-Americans out of swimming pools in past generations.

Are we truly living in a “post-racial” America?  Does race still matter in the United States?  Is the problem of the Twenty-First Century the problem of the color line?  The Valley Club of Huntingdon Valley incident, and other similar incidents, forces us to squarely examine these questions.

This Article will examine the race, economic, and the legal implications of the Valley Club incident.  First, Part I of this Article explores the factual background surrounding the Valley Club incident.  Second, Part II examines the racial implications of the Valley Club incident, looking at two (2) issues: (1) racially defined public and private space in the United States; and (2) stereotypes and perceptions of African-American and Latino youth as criminal and undesirable members of society.  Third, Part III analyzes the economic implications of the Valley Club incident.  Fourth, Part IV discusses the legal implications of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s recent finding of probable cause surrounding the events this past summer at the Valley Club.

I.          Factual Background: Discrimination at the Valley Club of Huntingdon Valley

June 29, 2009, started out as a fun day for 56 African-American and Latino children who arrived at the Valley Club of Huntingdon Valley around 3:45 p.m. as part of the Creative Steps Summer Day Camp.[5] Alethea Wright, the head of the Creative Steps Camp, had previously made arrangements with John Duesler, the President of the Valley Club, to allow her children the opportunity to swim at the Valley Club after arrangements with the YMCA fell through.[6] Wright wrote a check for $1950.00 to cover the cost of swimming at the Valley Club.  Duesler stood at the head of the bus and instructed the children to obey Valley Club rules and regulations and to “Have fun.”[7]

The “fun” did not last too long.  Fifteen (15) to twenty (20) white Valley Club members immediately exited the swimming pool when the Creative Steps campers arrived.[8] Sometime after their arrival, one child overheard club member Michelle Flynn say, “What are all of these black kids doing here?”[9] The same child indicated that Flynn also stated: “I am scared they might do something to my child.”[10] Flynn, who happened to be a teacher at Laura H. Carnell Elementary School in Philadelphia, where Creative Steps happened to be based, recognized one of the campers as one of her students.[11] Flynn, and another Carnell teacher who happened to be at the club at the time, Deborah Mindel, began telling other club members that the student Flynn recognized had stolen a teacher’s cell phone.[12] The accusation that the child had stolen anything turned out to be wholly unfounded.[13] At the conclusion of their 90-minute swimming session, the Creative Steps campers left the Valley Club around 5:15 p.m.[14]

In conversations and emails that ensued, primarily during the evening of June 29, 2009, other hurtful things were said.  “That night, club members began a chain of e-mails to Duesler and other board members that both fueled the decision to revoke the Creative Steps contract and, later, led Human Relations Commission investigators to conclude they had found racially biased behavior.”[15] In an email to another member of the Valley Club, Michelle Flynn stated: “This is not the community where these kids live…since I personally know some of these kids because I teach at their school and I have seen firsthand what at least one of these children is capable of I don’t feel comfortable with my children even going to the bathroom during this time”[16]

Other Valley Club members emailed Duesler and members of the Board of Trustees threatening to leave the all-white club over the presence of the black kids.[17] Walt Slowinski, a member, wrote to other members with a subject line reading “bussing” that he would leave the club.[18] Slowinski added that he did not think that the club was “…some sort of social program.”[19] Board member Mary Jane Gormley wrote suggesting that Creative Step’s money be refunded because “after talking to teachers who taught some of the children, many of them were removed from school do to stealing and severe behavioral problems…I feel we were misled with the type of camp this was.  This is a city camp…that is not going to bring any new members into the club.”[20] Amanda Spaeder, another club member, noted she understood the concerns of others because she knows the “distress of big, unbehaved groups such as this.”[21]

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s Report finding probable cause noted that “racial animus” and “racially coded” comments were at the heart of Valley Club’s decision to refund the fees paid by Creative Steps.[22] The Human Relations Commission flatly rejected the Valley Club’s assertion that pool capacity and lack of lifeguards was the primary reason for deciding to refund Creative Step’s money.

II.        The Racial Implications of the Valley Club Incident

A.        Not in My Neighborhood: The Racialization of Private and Public Space in America

Largely, America, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, was a nation defined by public and private racial space.  For example, African-Americans could not drink from the same water fountains as whites, could not seek service in restaurants at the same counters as whites, could not view movies in the same sections as whites, could swim in the same pools as whites, and could not seek a host of public accommodations on the same terms as whites.  These are examples of the public racialization of space in America.  On the private side of life, African-Americans were barred through redlining and restrictive covenants from living in the same neighborhoods as whites.  In addition, a whole host of other private benefits were denied African-Americans.  In the pre-Civil Rights Movement African-Americans and whites were forced to operate in defined public and private racial spaces.

The Valley Club incident provides us all a painful reminder and lesson that in today’s America public and private space is still racially defined to a large extent.  The comments made by the white club member that are at the heart of the Valley Club controversy bear this point out all too well.

B.        Stereotypes and Presumptions Surrounding African-American and Latino Youth

The Valley Club incident illustrates another major problem in our society surrounding the day-to-day lives of African-American and Latino youth in this country: the pervasive stereotype or presumption that African-American and Latino youth are nothing more than common criminals.  A number of segments of society are fearful and jittery when they encounter African-American and Latino youths.  Media reports and images have led a major segment of the American population to belief that all African-American and Latino youth are capable of is robbery, murder, and other assorted and sundry criminal activity.  Oftentimes, African-American and Latino youth are presumed by many to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal or other anti-social behavior even when they have not committed a crime or acted badly.  The presence of African-American and Latino youth in the private or public space of some Americans breeds unfounded fear and suspicion.  For some people, the simple fact of the matter is that African-American and Latino adolescents are members of society who in their minds are socially worthless castaways.

The factual background that served as the backdrop for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s finding of probable cause against the Valley Club provides us some insight into the fear and anxiety that some people feel when perceiving and interacting with African-American and Latino youth.

III.       The Hidden Cost and Price of Being African-American of Latino in America: The Economic Implications of the Valley Club Controversy for African-Americans and Latinos

Economists are quick to point out the term “price discrimination.”  Literally, “price discrimination” can literally mean more for African-Americans and Latinos than any economist could ever imagine.  From a racial and economic standpoint and perspective, the Valley Club controversy drives home one important and powerful economic lesson that is linked to race: There is a tangible cost associated with conducting business transactions in the United States if you are African-American or Latino.  Namely, if you are African-American or Latino you may very well end up paying the same or more for a good or service than your white counterpart, and get less for your bargain because of your race.  At the end of the day, money is not colorblind if you happen to be African-American or Latino.  The Valley Club controversy provides us with a tangible and salient economic lesson that implicates race and discrimination.

From the discriminator’s perspective, racial discrimination also has a hidden cost.  Quite honestly, it can bankrupt an institution.  The Valley Club incurred more than $100,000 in legal fees and other expenses defending against the claims made by the Creative Steps campers.[23] In addition, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission levied a $50,000 fine against the club for racial slurs against the one child.[24] This incident ended in financial ruin for the Valley Club.  In November of 2009, the Valley Club of Huntingdon Valley filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.[25] Discrimination can hit the bad actor in the pocket where it hurts most.  This is a valuable lesson.

IV.       The Enduring Legal Implications of the Valley Club Controversy

Again, the Valley Club controversy reminds that we have not fully gotten beyond the demons and legacy of race in America.  From a legal perspective, at the federal and state level, it is important that we maintain and enforce anti-discrimination laws designed to protect members of protected classifications and categories in a whole host of areas.  Where public accommodations are concerned, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is still as important and relevant, if not more so, than it was in 1964 when it was promulgated.  Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Act[26] remains important to combat invidious discrimination in providing public accommodations.

The Valley Club incident reinforces the vigilance and commitment to the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws that is needed and necessary at all levels.  Federal departments and agencies[27] and state commissions, like the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, have an important role play in society to stamp out discrimination in a variety of forms.[28]

V.        Conclusion

The Valley Club incident reminds us that we can easily return to the stagnant and pungent pool of racism in America.  Race still matters and is important in the everyday lives of many African-Americans and Latinos.  We do not currently live in a “post-racial” America.  Even in the Age of Obama, we have a long way to go.

* Associate Professor of Law, Capital University School of Law.  A.B., Brown University, 1995.  J.D., Duke University School of Law, 1998.  I would like to acknowledge and thank all of my colleagues at Capital University School of Law for their support, encouragement, and mentoring.

[1] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, The Forethought, (Digireads 2005), at 5.

[2] Adam Nagourney, Obama: Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory, N.Y. Times, November 5, 2008, at A1.

[3] See generally, Bob Herbert, The Scourge Persists, N.Y. Times, September 19, 2009, at A19; Danny Hakim and Raymond Hernandez, Critics Driven By Racial Bias, Paterson Says, N.Y. Times, August 22, 2009, at A1; Gina Bellefante, Lifestyles Of the Rich, Famous And African-American, N.Y. Times, February 26, 2009, at C4; and Radical Cheer, N.Y. Times, February 15, 2009, at MM 13.

[4] Pennsylvania: Discrimination Found, N.Y. Times, September 23, 2009, at A23.

[5] Derrick Nunnallyand and Joelle Farrel, A single question ignited racial storm Pa. commission report tracks e-mails among members at Valley Club, September 24, 2009, Phila. Inquirer, at A01.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Swim club in racial flap says it’s broke, UPI NewsTrack, November 19, 2009, at 02:02:44.

[24] Id.

[25] IdSee also, Editorial: Stagnant Pool, Phila. Inquirer, November 18, 2009, at A18.

[26] See generally, 43 P.S. 955, et seq.

[27] Interestingly, the United States Department of Justice also got involved in the investigation of the Valley Club incident on the urging of Senator Arlen Specter.  See generally, Annie Tasker, An investigation has been opened into discrimination allegations leveled against The Valley Club, Bucks County Courier Times, September 25, 2009, at 1.

[28] The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has stood at the vanguard over the past fifty (50) years through involvement in a variety of issues from school desegregation to pool desegregation.   The Commission has been in involved in literally hundreds of cases involving discrimination.  See generally, Pa. agency in pool case has fought bias for years, Phila. Inquirer, September 24, 2009, at A07.

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