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.
“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?