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August of 2010 in Louisiana, six African American teenagers ages 13 to 18 all died drowning trying to save each other. There were other people present during the tragic drowning including adults, and not one of them could swim either. Unfortunately, this brought up the common stereotype about Black people:

Why Don’t Black People Swim?

This stereotype like many others has been around for quite some time, with statistics to accompany it. According to USA Swimming, almost 70 percent of African American children have limited or no swimming skills compared to 40 percent of White children who don’t. Of course these are not scientific numbers and probably have room for percentage error, however, it doesn’t take away from the fact of Black children more vulnerable to drowning than other children.

The stereotype of Black people not swimming and the culture of swimming pools go much deeper than swimming. Swimming pools and even the act of swimming has underlying racial and socio-economic issues that go back to the early decades of the 20th century. During the 1920s and 1930s, community swimming pools were becoming popular and was a common activity for children and their families; White families that is. Pools just weren’t being built in minority neighborhoods and Black children swimming with White children didn’t happen. Whites believed African Americans were easily susceptible to “different” diseases and absurd germs hence the separation of everything.

Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, says that there were two methods of segregating pools. “One was through official segregation. Police officers and city officials would prevent Black Americans from entering pools earmarked for Whites. The other way of segregating pools was through violence. A city like Pittsburgh who did not pass an official policy to segregate pools, would have the police and city officials allow and in some cases encourage White swimmers to literally beat Black swimmers out of the water.” Access to pools were extremely limited because of the racially charged laws kept African Americans away from community pools. Intimidation was often used to scare African Americans away from swimming pools, something that was swiftly becoming a fixture in American family pastimes.

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Once pools started to become de-segregated and were supposed to legally allow African Americans in community pools, White families started to leave neighborhood pools. Private club and residential pools began to trend leaving the pools freely to African Americans. However, since Whites were now leaving community pools behind for private pools, the maintenance of swimming pools decreased. Presently, inner city pools are being shut down faster than ever simply because it’s not a priority for cities or families anymore.

Yet, Back in 2009, The Valley Swim Club here in Pennsylvania made headlines when a group of primarily Black campers from Northeast Philadelphia were turned away from the club after paying $1900. Many believe they were turned away because The Valley Swim Club is primarily frequented by White children. The club’s president response was, There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club”.

Despite it being a stereotype, it isn’t entirely untrue. But, years of institutionalized racism has contributed to generations of African Americans either not knowing how to swim or having no interest. Hopefully, the story from Louisiana will be a lesson for everyone, no matter the race, background, or status.

words by: Valerye Griffin – (@valmarie)

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