How Racism Played A Role In Black Americans’ Ability To Swim


When we examine the roots of stereotypes about Black people, America’s history of racism is usually somehow involved. The stereotype that Black people can’t swim is no different. Between segregated city pools and beaches, trauma experienced and passed down from slavery, swimming has been a complicated subject and out of reach for many Black Americans. 

On National Learn How to Swim Day, celebrated every third Saturday in May, it’s important we talk about water safety and acknowledge the origins of a stereotype that has transcended generations, and put many of us at risk when it comes to enjoying water recreation.

Why were Pools and Beaches Segregated?

Ongoing narratives about Black people being dirty, diseased, or otherwise infectious were pervasive during the 1920s and 1930s, the time when city pools were first flourishing in the US. The characterization of Black people being a sexual threat and overly sexualized influenced segregation laws for public pools and beaches across the country, according to history professor and author of Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America, Victoria W. Wolcott. White people went so far as to put nails at the bottom of public pools, or pour bleach and acid in water to keep Black people out of the water. 

Without access to public swimming pools or beaches, generations of Black Americans did not learn how to swim at the same rate as white people. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregated public spaces including swimming pools, though the law took time to be actualized, and intimidation strategies continued to be used to keep Black people away from pools and beaches. 

Even after the swimming pool boom of the 1920s ended with the Great Depression, the Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration received funding to build 1,000 pools across the country. However, many of those pools weren’t built in predominantly Black neighborhoods, according to history professor and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse. Along with the pool construction, the nation launched a “learn-to-swim” campaign, but with fewer numbers of pools for Black people, the resources weren’t as widespread.

A Lasting Impact

As a result of the systemic racism, many Black Americans who grew up during the time didn’t have access to learning how to swim. Ongoing racial injustice helped perpetuate the lack of access to swim lessons and stereotypes which has had an unfortunate lasting impact on Black communities across the country. 

According to the CDC, Black children, particularly Black boys, are at higher risk of drowning than other groups. Accessible swim lessons and water safety training resources, experts say, can help reduce the rate of Black children and adults who drown each year.

Available Resources

Many cities have free or low-cost swim lessons available for youth during the summer. Contacting local parks and recreation authorities might be a good place to start. Additionally, organizations like Black Kids Swim, provide resources for families and Black competitive swimmers. Here’s a list of other swim and water safety resources. 

Black Kids Swim

Black People Will Swim 

Pool Safely 

YMCA 

Breaking the Mold 

Lastly, we want to celebrate those who are challenging this stereotype on the world stage. Here are some Black Olympic and professional swimmers to know. 

Cullen Jones

Enith Brigitha

Maritza Correia

Simone Manuel

Lia Neal

Miles Simon

Photo Credit: Getty Images