By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
An often heard and constantly repeated racist stereotype that “black people can’t swim” or more specifically, “African American people can’t swim” has been around for generations. The stereotype has been bolstered by the lack of representation of black swimmers during the four-year Olympic cycle when swimming suddenly becomes relevant in American culture for two months. Even the statistics are discouraging. According to the USA Swimming Foundation;
- 64% of African American children do not know how to swim (compared to 40% of Caucasian children).
- 79% of children in families that earn less than $50,000 a year do not know how to swim.
- 76% of parents report that their children would be more interested in taking up swimming if they saw a talented swimmer that looked like them.
The unfortunate consequence to this is a correlation among communities with a higher number of non-swimmers means a higher number of deaths by drowning. The grim reality of this, according to the Center for Disease Control; between 1999 and 2010, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher when compared to Caucasians. The highest disparity is among children 5-18 years old, with drowning rates 5.5 times higher for black children than that of white children. So, for every white kid that drowns, 5.5 black children drown.
The statistics are discouraging for sure and sadly, they have not been free from racist bias in attempts to explain and understand such statistics. Arguments have been presented to assert white supremacy, genetic racial inferiority so on and so forth. It’s all bullshit of course, there are no genetic, physiological or biological reasons why any large general population would be less capable of swimming based solely on race.
So, what’s the deal?
Well, the issue is rooted in the systematic racial oppression that exists within our society. The social construct of “race” solely based on skin color has been a cornerstone to the structure of our society built upon white supremacy and privilege to create socioeconomic and political advantages for white people at the expense of all other racial minorities. (Guess, 2006) It is a structure so deeply engrained within the foundation of our society that to undo will be costly, timely and difficult, yet necessary. Since the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States, black Americans have faced significant resistance to achieving true and full equality in all aspects of American society.
In 1896 the very first Olympic Games was hosted in Athens, Greece and included swimming as part of the core sports contested during the event. Since these games swimming had steadily become more popular as a competitive and recreational activity, especially in the United States. One of the most successful Olympic swimmers in the early 20th Century included Hawaii’s own Duke Kahanamoku who went on to win five Olympic medals throughout his swimming career. Kahanamoku inspired a whole generation of young Americans to take up swimming and helped laid the foundation to modern competitive swimming.
At the same time, Jim Crow laws were passed that enforced racial segregation primarily (but not limited to) the southern United States that consisted of the former Confederacy. These laws were designed to disenfranchise and remove all the political, social, and economy gains made by black people during the Reconstruction period. Jim Crow laws most notably mandated a racial segregation of all public facilities including bathrooms, drinking fountains, public transport and swimming pools.
While the propaganda at the time pushed a “separate but equal” form of racial segregation in such facilities. The reality was that facilities designated for black people were consistently underfunded, poorly built and left unmaintained. Jim Crow laws were meant to limit any kind of economic, educational, political and social growth for black Americans. Several generations of black Americans never had any kind of access to swimming pools, geographically, economically or socially; let alone the resources to learn how to swim. This wasn’t without resistance though, most famously was the 1964 “Swim In” at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida.
The “Swim In” took place on June 18th, 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights movement lead by Martin Luther King Jr. The Monson Motor Lodge’s pool was a “whites only” pool. The act of protest was simply to jump into the pool and go swimming in defiance of the “whites only” racist policy. The protest was highly publicized as the local media caught wind of the protest and were onsite to get the story. Once the swimmers jumped in, the motel’s owner threw a fit. He responded by pouring acid into the pool to the great danger of the swimmers in the water. In a story from NPR about the event, J.T. Johnson and Al lingo both of whom were present at the events shared what happened next,
“Everybody was kind of caught off guard,” J.T. says. “The girls, they were most frightened, and we moved to the center of the pool,” Al says.
“I tried to calm the gang down. I knew that there was too much water for that acid to do anything,” J.T. says. “When they drug us out in bathing suits and they carried us out to the jail, they wouldn’t feed me because they said I didn’t have on any clothes. I said, ‘Well, that’s the way you locked me up!’
“But all of the news media were there, because somehow I guess they’d gotten word that something was going to happen at that pool that day. And I think that’s when President [Lyndon B.] Johnson got the message.”
The “Swim In” sent a strong message that helped contribute to the Jim Crow laws being overruled by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965: but 55 years later, we are still moving too slow to create more access to swimming pools, learn to swim and water safety resources.
There is still a disproportional economic inequality in which predominantly black households earn less income on average than all other racial demographics. As reported above, 79% families earning less than $50,000 a year do not know how to swim and are less likely to enroll children into swim lesson programs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau examining median household income by race; as of 2017 Black American households have a median income of $40,258.
Despite this, one of the biggest barriers in increasing participation of black Americans in swim lesson and water safety programs comes down to representation; or lack thereof. As cited above, 76% of parents report that their children would be more interested in taking up swimming if they saw a talented swimmer that looked like them. There have been a few notable black and African American elite swimmers, but the list is still quite short;
- 1982, Chris Silva from Los Angeles, California became the first black swimmer to compete for Team USA when he competed at the World University Games in Edmonton, Canada.
- 1988 Anthony Nest from Suriname became the first African swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea.
- 1999 Allison Terry from San Diego became the first black female swimmer to compete for Team USA when she competed at the Pan American Games.
- 2000 Anthony Ervin became the first African American swimmer to compete for Team USA at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
- 2004 Maritza Correia became the first black female swimmer to compete for Team USA at the Olympics and the first black female swimmer to win an Olympic Gold Medal when she took home silver as part of the 4×100 freestyle relay team. At the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
- 2004 both Genai Kerr from San Diego, California and Omar Amr from Irvine, California became the first black swimmers to compete for Team USA in water polo when they took part in the Summer Olympics in Athens Greece.
- 2006 Cullen Jones became the first black swimmer for Team USA to set a world record when he took part in the 4×100 freestyle relay team at the Pan Pacific Championships in Victoria, BC, Canada. He later went to win the gold medal in the 2007 World Championships and the 2008 Summer Olympic Games with the same members of the 4×100 freestyle relay team. Cullen Jones also went on to win one gold and two silver medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.
- 2016 Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win an individual swimming medal at the Olympic Games. She tied for the gold medal and an Olympic record in the women’s 100-meter freestyle at the Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
Cullen Jones and Simone Manuel are leading a new generation of young black swimmers through representation by participation. Simply being a role model for young kids to look up to is helping to inspire more kids and families to learn how to swim. But they can’t do it alone.
USA Swimming’s Make a Splash is working to make swimming lessons and water safety programs more accessible and economical for communities with limited resources. However, the one thing we can all do is to confront the very structure that has limited these opportunities for generations, systematic racism. Swimming teams, clubs and organizations all over the USA have formed diversity committees focused on understanding and building diversity within the sport. One consistent message that comes up is that we need to have these uncomfortable discussions regarding the presence of racism and white privilege. This is a message that shouldn’t solely come from the black community either, it is something that white people must confront within themselves and with each other.
In team environments the social comradery is undeniable, but even with that level of social comfort, jokes can be made, words can be mentioned, and unacceptable language is often used even if it is seemingly innocent. The people using this unacceptable language may not understand why it’s inappropriate while kids and athletes who are affected by this unacceptable language may afraid to speak out about it. It may even drive them to distance themselves from the sport or even quit. The coaches, managers and other athletes may never even learn from it.
The burden of confronting these issues cannot be on the athlete, it must start from the top with the coaches, parents, officials and team managers. Learning how to recognize when such language is used, learning how to confront it and make it into a learning experience. Having tools and resources available for coaches and trainers to learn from and things to put in practice. Hiring a diverse staff is important to ensure there is representation among the team leaders and that they serve a functional, prominent and crucial role within the team.
Dismantling the systematic racist structures in swimming won’t be easy, but it will encourage more young kids to take up the sport and it will ensure equal opportunity access to swim lesson and water safety programs that will help save lives. That makes it worth it.
Guess, T. J. (2006). The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence. Critical Sociology, 32(4), 649-673. doi:10.1163/156916306779155199