Simone Manuel breaks the ultimate color barrier -- the pool

Story highlights

  • Roxanne Jones: Victorious black swimmer Simone Manuel knows the resonance of her position in an era of racial struggle
  • Jones: History of blacks being systematically denied use of public pools makes Manuel's Olympic win also a victory about race

Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events, is a co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete," and CEO of the Push Marketing Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)For black women in America, the past several years have been deeply painful. Not that it's ever been a joy ride, exactly. We just thought this journey was getting a little smoother, that we could drop our guard a bit and just live.

But then here we are again -- mothers, daughters and friends, every day, it seems, publicly grieving for lost loved ones, protesting angrily that our #BlackLivesMatter, witnessing our sisters being brutalized and sometimes killed by police, or by other angry men.
    I confess that collectively some days our grief and frustration just seem too much to bear.
    And then grace steps in. And we are inspired.
    Simone Manuel's Olympic gold win in the 100-meter freestyle -- the first ever for an African-American woman in swimming -- reminds us how resilient and strong we have always been, and how strong we must continue to be. Gliding through the water with unfettered determination and all the beauty inherited from generations past, Manuel reminded us that we have always been and always will be one of the most important ingredients in this jumbled American pie.
    A Stanford University student from Sugarland, Texas, Simone understands why she is so special. She embraces the responsibility that comes with being a successful, young black woman. And after her victory, Simone boldly stood before the world and talked about how today's toxic racial climate affects her:
    "It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality," Manuel said. "This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on."
    Brava, Simone. This young woman has a calm courage and sense of self that so many Millennials are showing the world these days. It rejuvenates my optimism. And this is not the first time Manuel has spoken about her commitment to the fight for racial justice. She's always been there.
    Long before the games, she explained her motivation to win. "I'm hoping what I can do in Rio is give some people just have to keep fighting," Manuel told TIME. "Our ancestors did. What we do [now] is a reflection of what they have done for us. It's also a platform for what will happen in the future. We just have to keep fighting and persevering to try to make change."
    Indeed, the politics of swimming in the U.S. mirrors our history of segregation and white resistance to integration. Still today, attitudes about swimming often reflect lasting stereotypes and white America's attitudes about race.
    We need look no further for those attitudes than today's headlines declaring Manuel's Olympic win.
    "Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American" said the San Jose Mercury News headline. Immediately, it was rightly blasted on social media as both sexist and racist. The paper apologized and made a correction, but still didn't think Manuel's historic performance deserved its own billing separate from Phelps.
    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, white Americans are twice as likely to know how to swim as black Americans. It found black children aged five to 14 are three times more likely to die from unintentional drowning than their white counterparts. In the U.S., approximately 10 people die from unintentional drowning every day.
    For my generation, that meant our parents likely never learned to swim because the community pools were legally or illegally designated "Whites Only," or that the one decrepit community pool in their black neighborhood was a cesspool best to be avoided.
    Today, across too many American cities, blacks are systematically denied access to local municipal community centers that charge exorbitant entry fees, or, exclusive swim clubs that only the most resourceful parents can navigate. And when they do gain entry, the racist slights begin long before our children take their first dive.
    It was little more than a year ago, in Simone's home state of Texas, that we witnessed a McKinney police officer body slamming a slight 15-year-old black girl in her bikini and menacingly aiming his gun at a group of mostly local black teens. Their crime, witnesses said: daring to swim in a community pool during a kid's party.
    The officer was suspended and quickly resigned after multiple videos showed his aberrant behavior.
    But this was hardly an isolated event. These race wars have always played out across America's pools -- and not just in the South.
    In suburban Pennsylvania in 2009, 65 black and Latino campers from a day camp were confronted by angry white parents at the Valley Swim Club in Montgomery County after the camp's director had paid the private club $1,950 for campers to use the pool Mondays that summer.
    When the children showed up and jumped into the pool, angry parents yanked their kids out of the pool, demanding to know what the camp kids were doing there. Days later, the camp's agreement was canceled. Said the club president: "there was concern [among the members] that a lot of kids would change the complexion ... and the atmosphere of the club."
    Public, resort style swimming pools came into fashion in the North in the 1920's and 30s and were open to mostly working class families. Because Jim Crow only legally existed in the South at the time, these spaces were open to everyone -- at first.
    Quickly, however, as more pools were built and were for the first time open to both men and women, Northern politicians and white swimmers demanded a White's Only rule, citing their long-held, hysterical fears about lustful black men mixing too closely with their scantily clad white women.
    And so it began. Throughout the 60s and after legal racial segregation ended, public pools remained hostile territory. As more blacks and other races entered these public spaces, white swimmers fled to the privacy of their own backyard pools and private clubs.
    This is the ugly history that Simone defied with her beautiful gold medal performance. In her record-breaking 52:70 seconds, she's shattered one more racial stereotype. And righted one of the many injustices committed against black people throughout history.
    So yeah, you can argue that it's not about race, that it's just sports, just swimming. But you don't really believe it. We know it's much bigger. As one other famous woman, who knows a bit about swimming against the tide, likes to say -- "it's one more crack in the glass ceiling" that oppresses us all. And one day we will tear it all down.