Debunking The Stereotype That Blacks Don’t Swim

Courtesy 12 Miles North

By Guest Contributor Tetsuhiko Endo, cross-posted from The Inertia

In the great and varied canon of American racial stereotypes, there is a highly detailed list of segregated sports. Basketball, for instance, is a “Black” sport. Hockey, on the other hand, is for Whites. Surfing falls firmly into the category of “white sport,” somewhere between mountaineering and golf. It could be argued that there is no “whiter” sport in the world that was originally invented by non-whites. There are many ways to illustrate this, but let’s leave it here: It is the only sport since the 1936 summer Olympics in which the 2009 world champion, Mick Fanning, can say something overtly anti-Semitic to a reporter and the outlet that reports the statement will be blamed for bad taste.

Why don’t black people surf? That can be answered with another race-based generalization: Black people don’t swim. Consider the numbers: A 2010 study by US Swimming, America’s governing body of competitive swimming, found that nearly half of White children (42 percent) had low or no swimming ability. That number was topped by Hispanic American children; 58 percent of whom reported no or low swimming ability. Black children had the highest non-swimming rates at just under than 70 percent.

I suspect that the white numbers are slightly inflated based on the fact many that my Caucasian, land-lubbing friends define “swimming” as walking into a pool up to their waist, getting out, then applying more coconut oil. But that doesn’t change the fact that swimming rates among Black children are abysmal. Infinitely more worrisome is that Black children are around three times more likely to drown than White children, based on another study by US swimming, which is apparently the only organization who studies these sorts of things.

There is one problem with these studies: although the numbers are correct, the conclusion that we causally draw from them is utterly corrupt. The numbers tell us that many black people don’t swim; Our interpretation, however, is that black people are not swimmers, which is wrong. The truth is that American blacks have a long and well-documented history of loving to swim. In order to understand why African American culture does not currently enjoy a well established culture of recreational swimming, we need to delve under the stereotypes and generalizations and look at the history of exclusion that has accompanied their efforts to access the water.

“There were two periods of time in 20th century in which swimming became popularized and democratized in the US,” says Jeff Wiltse, author of the book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. “The first was in the 1920s and 1930s. That’s really when swimming as a recreational activity became popular in US. The vehicles of this popularization were the swimming pools being built in inter-war period. However, it was during that time that blacks were being denied access or relegated to pools that couldn’t accommodate very many people or were generally less desirable.”

Wiltse’s book deals with the complex web of segregation that enveloped black Americans upon their emancipation form slavery. In this web, the municipal swimming pool became ground zero for Jim Crow. When the first pools opened in cities like Philadelphia in the late 19th century, they were considered to be public baths and located in a low-income neighborhood so that people without access to running water could clean themselves. These pools were segregated by sex but integrated as far as race was concerned. One of the first pools to combine the sexes was the Fairgrounds Pool in St. Louis, which opened to great fanfare in 1913.

By then, the swimming pool had turned from a public hygiene project into a coveted leisure space, which was quickly becoming an American institution. At 440 feet in diameter, the circular Fairgrounds Pool was the largest in the country by a country mile. It was ringed by an artificial sand beach and had an inclined bottom that mimicked the gradual deepening of the sea floor. The recreation department even considered putting a wave machine in but nixed the idea because it was too expensive.

On hot summer days, thousands of people packed into the pool. None of them were black. This was not for lack of desire on the part of black residents of St Louis. Instead, the pool was forcibly, and at times violently segregated because city officials didn’t want black men interacting with white women in such an intimate space. Wiltse cites the Fairground pool as “one point of origin of the mixed-gender, racially segregated leisure society that came to predominate during the twentieth century.” The fear of black men interacting with white women in swimwear kept pools firmly segregated until the mid 1950s.

When some black people began to resist the race barrier, either through lawsuits filed with the backing of the NAACP or through actually entering a pool and trying to swim, they were often met with a host of legal tricks, violence, or a combination of the two. A common way of segregating a pool was for the city government to lease the pool to a private company to operate. Although the government couldn’t legally segregate, a private company could make whatever rules it wanted.

In smaller towns, they would often promise angry black communities their own swimming pool for years without delivering. In 1942, Montgomery, West Virginia closed its only municipal swimming pool for four years instead of permitting interracial swimming. When the Fairground Pool was desegregated in 1949, 5000 White people rioted and indiscriminately beat any black person they could get their hands on near the park where the pool was located.

An artistic rendering of Nick Gabaldon's last wave at the Malibu Pier. Gabaldon is credited with being the first documented African American surfer. Art: Peter Spacek

“The second period when swimming became popularized and democratized was in the 1950s and 1960s sixties,” says Wiltse. That era of popularization primarily occurred at the (literally) tens of thousands of private club pools in the nation’s burgeoning suburbs. As some historians have pointed out, the Post-War suburbs were lily-white. So, we basically see a replay of what happened in the first swimming pool boom–tens of thousands of new pools contributed to further the democratization and popularization of swimming, but all this was occurring in institutions to which Black Americans had no access.”

This era differed slightly from the first in that the segregation was often a function of larger social norms instead of explicit racism. “There was some overt racism during this period in denying black Americans access to pools, but in large part it was more a consequence of residential segregation,” says Wiltse. “…These pools were located in neighborhoods that Black Americans simply didn’t have access to.”

The late 1960s saw a public pool building spree in low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods, but unfortunately for would-be black swimmers, the structures were little more than glorified bathtubs, often no more than a few feet deep and designed more to appease lower-class, urban populations than to provide quality spaces for people to swim.

During the same time period that they were denied access to pools, American blacks weren’t doing any better with beaches. Due to the growing concept of coastal land as valuable leisure space, as well as the same White/Black sexual concerns that surrounded swimming pools, black Americans were often only allowed to swim at out-of-the-way, segregated beaches in the American South.

In the beginning of the 20th century, almost all of the blacks in America lived in the South. However, the Great Migration, which would see the fanning-out of some six million Blacks over six decades to all parts of the nation, changed all of that. Many African Americans found that coastal areas were just as segregated in other parts of the country as they had been in the South. Frederick Douglas’ son Charles and his wife, Laura, founded a black beach resort at Highland Beach, Maryland after they had been refused service at the nearby Bay Ridge resort based on race.

Any black person who wished to move into a coastal (read: “White,”) community faced an uphill battle. It was often difficult for them to get loans for houses based on their race and even more difficult to find real-estate agents willing to show them houses in White neighborhoods. The residents of these neighborhoods often put racial covenants on their homes, which made it illegal to sell the property to people of other races. Although they were ruled unconstitutional in 1949, many racial covenants still sit like ghosts on house deeds to this day.

Efforts by black people to develop directly on the beach, either residentially or commercially, were even more contentious. Once such development, a proposed leisure and resort facility for black people in Santa Monica was opposed in courts by white property owners who organized themselves into “protective leagues” designed to “eliminat[e] all objectionable features or anything that now is or will provide a menace to the bay district,” Alison R. Jefferson, a Doctoral Graduate Student at UC Santa Barbara wrote.

“African Americans were squeezed out from living on the coast early which hurt their relationship with the ocean,” Jefferson says. “The beach in Santa Monica was seen as a gathering place. African Americans didn’t just go to swim, they went to see their friends.” It was that tendency to gather that local white people found threatening. “People didn’t bother them from a recreational access standpoint if they were individuals, but they definitely bothered them when they were in groups.”

The movement of many blacks away from the beach was a gradual process, according to Jefferson, that included a range of different motivations. “There was hostility towards them going to the beach so they just stopped going,” she says. “When you have activities where people are pushing you out and property prices are going up and restrictive racial covenants are imposed on properties, exclusion changes the dynamic of the community. In Santa Monica there are still old African American families that own property but most of the community started moving more inland.”

Would-be black beach goers in other areas faced similar issues. A resort called Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach operated for twelve years in the face of repeated intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan but was eventually killed by the state in order to create a park. Another resort called the Pacific Beach Club in Huntington Beach was simply burned down by arsonists when it was near completion.

“Swimming in the United States is a cultural phenomenon,” says Wiltse. “Cultures operate by being passed down from generation to generation. White Americans learned to swim and enjoy the water during ‘20s and ‘30s. They then passed that down through family and friends. That just didn’t happen to black Americans…swimming never became part of their recreational culture as it did with whites.”

Culture is a fragile thing. In the late 19th century, surfing culture almost died out due to Western cultural imperialism in Hawaii. It survived thanks, in part, to people like Duke Kahanamoku, George Freeth, and others weren’t afraid to cross racial barriers in order to share something pure and fun with their fellow man.

I don’t think black Americans need similar cultural ambassadors to develop a swimming culture (and a subsequent surfing culture), because regardless of what the statistics say, they have had one all along. It has endured over 400 years of assault from slave owners, Jim Crow policies, real-estate segregation, and informal racism. Still it continues, beleaguered but by no means broken to this day.

Of the many obstacles black swimming culture still faces, perhaps the most daunting, is the very notion that it does not exist: that a black person enjoying the water is anomalous, that surfing and swimming, and all water-based activities are somehow written into the genetic code of Caucasians and omitted from that of Blacks. It is our responsibility, as surfers and as people of all races, to change this discourse. The question should not be: “Why don’t black people surf?” It should be “Why wouldn’t black people surf?

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  • kim

    Great read. I live in Southern California and didn’t know this history.

    I grew up on the East Coast in a smaller city with a majority Black population and I worked summers at a city public pool cleaning decks and equipment. (I loved it because summers were so sticky and hot and at the end of my shift I could jump in.) The majority of people who swam there were, obviously, Black and so were the lifeguards.

  • Lauren

    It’s the same reason why sports like basketball and football and primarily considered black sports.  Access.  Access is the key.  In basketball, kids got a basketball from somewhere and made a crate into a hoop.  Find a street and there you go.  A pool?  A little bit more expensive and a little bit harder to come by.  It’s the same reason why white public schools are better than black public schools.  It baffles me that this is a mystery to a lot of people.

    It actually annoys me that there are people who WANT to believe there’s some sort of genetic reasoning in my brain that wants to keep black people away from water.  Essentially, to me, you’re a stone’s throw away from saying intelligence is genetic, and I won’t have any of that.It’s so frustrating because it’s hard to know who you’re dealing with.  A very intelligent person can believe the stupidest things.

    I am really irritated with how some people want to erase the past 60 years as if they’ve had no affect on America.  Yes slavery happend but it still affects this country.  It lasted for 400 years and after that we still had to deal with Jim Crow, legalized discrimination, how can you not believe that behavior like that will affect today’s world?

    There are a lot of people out there, not just white people, but people who are well off, who refuse to accept that they have a priviledged lifestyle because of the color of thier skin and their ancestors.

  • Nell

    Interesting articles as always!    From the time I was about 5, I’ve been a swimmer.  Not only that, my father and most of his siblings (he has 8 brothers and sisters), are great swimmers.  Get this: they (as well as myself) are all black folks who grew up in Baltimore City.  So, yes, we’re breaking all kinds of stereotypes, lol! But, as pointed out by Val, I think socioeconomic status has more of a role in this than these studies care to point out.  As a child, my aunt and her family moved to a pretty affluent (and 98% white) county in VA.  Almost of the homes in that area had pools; my aunt’s home had an in-ground pool.  All of my cousins’ friends from that area knew how to swim and had been swimming since an early age because they had access to pools in their own backyards.  For the groups of people who are low on the totem pool of socioeconomic success, being able to afford to put a pool in their backyard or pay for swimming lessons can be out of reach (and certainly not considered vital).  I bet folks leaving in southwest Baltimore, which has a high concentration of Black AND White people who are impoverished, are probably not avid swimmers.

  • Anonymous

    Black people, men and women, surf in Jamaica. Look up Boston Bay and Bull Bay, and the Jamaica Surfing Association.
    Those communities that have decent surf rolling in have surfers. And skate boarders! Boston Bay is like a little bit of California in the Caribbean.

    However, lots of Jamaicans cannot swim, despite living on an island criss-crossed with rivers.

  • Susan Donovan

    Hey friends, I just want to say how much I appreciate this piece.  I live in NYC and enjoy urban kayaking. The Hudson and East and Bronx Rivers, The Bronx Kill and the Hell Gate are such important bodies of water to me. 

    Every year a few kids drown in the Bronx river trying to get a swim in during the oppressive summer heat. NYC has fewer public pools per child than any other major US city. Welthier people can join private gyms or use university pools or even the rare high school pool (found mostly at private schools with 40K tuition) –but a kid from the south bronx must go to the public pool… and wait in line for his turn to swim.

    When people try to make it sound like it is the fault of parents or these kids that so few of them can swim I want to slap someone!

    I have been writing letter and lobbying for more waterfront access in the city. We have millions of people most of whom live on ISLANDS and they can’t swim and they don’t know how to paddle or sail.

    It’s a shame.

  • Jay

    Thanks for this great article.  Understanding the history of stereotypes is a helpful step toward rejecting them.

  • Eva

    There’s been a swimming pool in my neighborhood (Harlem) for decades.  It’s one of those recreation centers the city runs, the pool is quite large and many black people swim there every day.  I think today many more black people are learning how to swim/swimming.  But I agree with you, I see less young women swimming today.  Most of the ladies I see at the pool are fifty an up.

  • Matt

    Really enjoyed this piece, though I think the raced socioeconomic division that continues to exist todayneeds to be discussed as to why this disparity, especially in drfowning rates, continues. During my training as a lifeguard I remember my instructor highlighting the difference, pointing to how expensive most swimming lessons are (where municipally-provided or private). Obviously lower-income (thus disproportionately black) individuals have less access to the lessons, and thus more likely to drown. Obviously this is a crude simplification for the sake of a short comment, but I would have liked to see that discussed a little more. 

  • Christo

    This reminds me of the story of Joe Fortes, a Trinidadian who moved to Vancouver, Canada, in 1885 and spent most of his free time patrolling the beach and teaching kids how to swim (and, of course, swimming himself).  He became the city’s first paid life guard. He was well loved, and a few years back a film was made about him:

  • Sarah Louise Broat

    Thanks for posting this, I was always so confused by this stereotype. I lived for awhile in a Midwest city with a large African American population and whenever I went to my apartment complex’ pool it was full of my neighbors swimming, 90% of them being Black. Same with local parks/lakes, and the local water park.

  • Val

     Great post. There are a lot of things mentioned regarding the impediments to swimming Black people faced that I didn’t know about.

    One curious thing to me is how these studies about what race does what almost always exclude economic class from their studies and lump all minorities in the same group. For instance I grew up upper middle class and I have been swimming since I was about 3 years-old. Not only that but for a while when I was growing up we lived on the beach and although I didn’t surf I did a lot of boogie boarding. And I wasn’t the only Black kid out there swimming and boogie boarding.

    So as I said I find these studies problematic because their aim seems to be to make non-Whites monolithic to prove whatever point they’re trying to make.

    • Anonymous

      I agree, and yes, I think socioeconomic and other details are important precisely for the reason you mentioned.  I got private and semi-private swimming lessons from age 3, always lived in neighborhoods that had a community swimming pool and plenty of neighbors and friends who had pools, and my parents considered getting one as well, so I think I was shocked to find so many people who could not swim (my town in the South still had what had at one point been strictly the Black Y and my parents drove us across town so we’d see other black kids in the water, and back then at least, the black kids in that part of town spent the entire summer in the pool).

      There was a good segment on Real Sport in 2011 about how current and past lack of access to pools has bred a couple of generations of black children (and their parents) who both cannot swim and who fear the water.  So black children are disproportionately represented among drowning victims in the U.S., and the black swimmer who won a gold medal in Beijing started swimming after a near miss with water I think.