Why Are Black People Afraid of Swimming
Since middle school, many of my Black friends have always been afraid to swim.
I didn’t understand back then. Even though my family had no money, my parents still signed me up for lessons.. I still remember going from Tadpole to Whale status with my swimmer patches.
Well into adulthood, when one of my best friends signed his kids up for swimming lessons, I was reminded of this pervasive fear in the Black community. My friend admitted that he was deathly afraid of the pool, but he signed up for swimming lessons since his kids were learning. This almost-40-year-old man eventually overcame his fear, but not without having near panic attacks when he was asked to put his head under water the first few times.
On “The Amazing Race,” Black twin brothers Idries and Jamil were eliminated on episode 2 because they couldn’t confront their fear of swimming. The two OB/GYNs could parachute 10,000 feet out of an airplane, no problem — just don’t make them swim.
It turns out nearly 60% of Black kids in the United States don’t know how to swim. Black kids drown at over three times the rate of white kids. It’s been commonplace for decades that Black parents don’t teach their kids how to swim.
But where did this puzzling stereotype and behavior come from?
In the late 1800s and into the 1930s, America went on a swimming pool building frenzy. Pools even popped up in poor immigrant neighborhoods — but few were allocated to the Black community.
Adding to that, Jim Crow laws in the South forced racial segregation of pools and beaches. And in the North, in places like Pittsburgh, where they didn’t have segregated pools, the police encouraged white swimmers to keep Black swimmers out by physically beating them. People would even throw cleaning supplies or acid into pools while Black children or families were swimming. In St. Louis in 1949, 200 white teenagers showed up with baseball bats to prevent Black kids from swimming in their pools.
For the few pools serving the Black community, the facilities typically were underfunded, poorly built and unmaintained.