Margaret Sawyer spent part of last summer driving across the country, stopping at public pools along the way to let her small children cool down and burn energy. Without intending to, she also set off a public relations crisis for the Red Cross.
At a pool in Salida, Colorado, Sawyer was idly reading some safety posters while her kids splashed nearby. At the top of one poster, pictured above, a cheerful whale announced “Be Cool, Follow the Rules.” The illustration below showed a pool in which various “cool” people follow proper water-safety procedures while other “not cool” types engage in risky behavior. A “cool” blonde girl waits her turn by the diving board, for example, and a “cool” fair-skinned dad minds his small child. The vast majority of the “not cool” rule breakers, meanwhile, have brown skin: One boy runs through a puddle, another dives too close to a swimmer, and a little black girl pushes a white girl into the pool. “How can this be, that the white kids are the ones doing good and the black kids are doing bad, and no one noticed it?” Sawyer remembers thinking.
At first, she says, she assumed the poster was a decades-old relic. But then she saw the poster at a second pool in Salida and discovered it was part of a 2014 safety campaign. Sawyer snapped a photo and posted it on Facebook. “We need to hold the Red Cross accountable for the publication of this poster,” she wrote. “Horrifying that children across the country are absorbing this message.” She also sent the photo to her brother, a consultant in Washington, D.C., who called it out on Twitter. Both posts took off; the “super-racist” poster, as John Sawyer dubbed it in his now-deleted tweet, received coverage from CNN, NBC News, and Time. “What the fuck, Red Cross?” Larry Wilmore asked on The Nightly Show. Within a week, the Red Cross had removed the poster from all locations and issued an apology: “We deeply apologize for any misunderstanding, as it was absolutely not our intent to offend anyone.”
The 136-year-old aid organization has had more than its share of five-alarm scandals in recent years. In 2014, NPR and ProPublica exposed how the Red Cross botched its responses to Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac, diverting 15 emergency response vehicles to press conferences at the height of the post-Sandy crisis. The following year brought another devastating exposé from NPR and ProPublica, this one on how the group squandered $500 million in donations for the Haiti earthquake disaster. CEO Gail McGovern had been hired in 2008 to clean up an organization that was running a huge annual deficit; her short-lived predecessor had been asked to resign after it came out that he’d impregnated an employee. After all this, the poster dust-up was, relatively speaking, a minor embarrassment. The story quickly met the fate of most outrage-provoking stories: It disappeared.
Outside of public view, however, the Red Cross was scrambling furiously to contain the damage done by its racist poster. In the days after the group’s public apology, McGovern arranged a meeting that included Red Cross executives and Ebony Rosemond, the head of a Maryland-based nonprofit called Black Kids Swim. The Red Cross went on to review all course materials for its lifeguard training and swimming programs. It opened a formal partnership with the nonprofit Diversity in Aquatics to review its aquatics-related educational programs and materials, and participated in that organization’s annual convention. And in April, the Red Cross hosted its first national aquatics symposium—with a focus on “populations where water-related injuries and drowning deaths occur at high rates, and where proactive resources are not easily accessible.”
The Red Cross’ chief public affairs officer, Suzy DeFrancis, outlined those changes to me in a lengthy email sent in response to an interview request, which the organization declined. On paper, it certainly looks like the Red Cross has “worked very hard in the past year to elevate our internal conversation on diversity and inclusion through action,” as DeFrancis put it, in a textbook example of why journalists always prefer phone interviews to ones conducted via email. But has the organization made any meaningful progress in helping make the water a safe and welcoming place for black children?
Ebony Rosemond of Black Kids Swim is skeptical. With regard to the various symposia and partnerships, she said, “I don’t know what that really does. That’s people in meetings and spending money on a fancy event. I don’t know how that helps diversify the sport. I don’t know how that helps a kid not drown.”
The Red Cross told me that its Aquatics Centennial Campaign, which focuses on water safety in “at-risk” communities with high drowning rates, has helped 9,100 children and adults learn to swim since 2014. But Rosemond wants to know why the organization doesn’t keep track of how many black and Hispanic children they have taught to swim. “That’s just bad research design,” she said. “If you want to change the statistics, then you will focus your intervention on those statistics, but they don’t.” Although DeFrancis emphasized that the program focuses on locations with “diverse demographics,” the organization’s 20-page 2016 annual report promotes the campaign but does not mention race at all. It’s also worth noting that 11 of the Red Cross’s 12 corporate officers and executive leadership team members are white; the only person of color is the chief diversity officer, Floyd Pitts. (The Red Cross provided data suggesting that both its overall workforce and management are more racially diverse than the U.S. workforce.)
The poster fracas was more than just another one-off outrage of the day. It has roots in an entrenched history of white racism and paranoia that has prevented black families from getting access to safe swimming areas. In the segregated 1920s and 1930s, many towns provided large outdoor pools for white residents, and—if anything—a small indoor pool for blacks. Desegregation changed the landscape. In 1949, when a group of black citizens of St. Louis tried to swim at the Fairground Park pool, a mob of 200 white people chased them off with bats, knives, and bricks. Many Southern towns eventually filled their pools with cement, with whites preferring to avoid swimming rather than swim with black people; private clubs and backyard pools often replaced them.
Today, black children drown at 5.5 times the rate of white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, 64 percent of black children have no or low swimming ability compared to 40 percent of white children. Just more than 1 percent of the 330,000-plus members of USA Swimming, the organizing body for competitive swimming, are black. And negative stereotypes about black children and swimming still linger in places like the Red Cross poster.
When I asked Margaret Sawyer if she was satisfied with the Red Cross’ actions over the past year, she trod cautiously. She said she’s pleased the organization seems to be having more internal conversations about diversity in swimming than they used to. But she would like to see more tangible changes, too. In particular, she had hoped the organization would consider adding anti-bias training to its lifeguard curriculum; the Red Cross trains more than 300,000 lifeguards every year. “As a lifeguard you have a lot of power,” she said. “There’s a history of pools and public parks being unwelcoming to people of color, so part of your job as a lifeguard is to go out of your way to be welcoming.”
It’s relatively simple for an individual to figure out how to be welcoming. It’s a much more challenging task for an enormous organization, particularly when the public stops paying attention and the real work begins.