The Segregation Of Swimming, And The Lasting Impact On The Sport

When we talk about sports in Canada and the United States, it’s often hockey that takes the brunt of criticism for an ongoing culture problem, and a problem with whiteness and racism.

Another sport however, competitive swimming, has an equally unequal background.

Competitive swimming and pools are definitely not free from disproportionate whiteness, and a deep history of anti-Black racism, which has caused the segregation of swimming to persist today.

For context, according to USA Swimming, only 1.4% of the more than 327,000 registered competitive swimmers in America are Black.

It would be hard to not tie these incredibly imbalanced numbers to segregation. In the first half of the 1900s, there was a boom of public pools being built. Thousands were constructed across North America. It seemed every community had a public pool. But these pools were for white people only. Segregation kept Black people from accessing public pools, and in coastal communities, public beaches.

It’s difficult to teach and promote swimming, when the water is reserved for those of a single race. Although many pools and facilities began the desegregation process in the 1940s and 1950s, in America is wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act, specifically Title II of the act, in 1964 that the racial segregation of public facilities, such as pools, became illegal.

Here is where people say, “yes, but that was in America.”

Wrong. Canada is not free from a history of segregation and anti-Black racism. 

For example, in 1923, Edmonton’s city council passed an ordinance banning Black individuals from swimming over the concerns of the white public over “mixed bathing.”  Again, it wasn’t until the 1960s that racial segregation was cut from the fabric of Canada’s laws. In Ontario, the last segregated school in the province was not closed until 1965.

For these reasons, it makes sense that the swimming community is predominantly white. Black individuals were not allowed into public swimming pools until a few generations ago, and when that finally happened…well, public pools began closing en masse.

This drastic reduction in the use of public pools correlated to the absence of white populations at pools as Black populations gained access.

At this point, in the 1970s, white populations began flocking to the suburbs, and backyard pools, or private clubs – these expensive ventures became the access point to swimming, again separating the Black community from access, and forming a divide not only built on a foundation of system anti-Black racism, but now adding the barrier of socio-economic elitism to the fold.

During segregation the emergence of swimming lessons, and learn-to-swim programs became popularized.

When we consider the access of swimming pools and swimming lessons for white people alone, and the racist barring of Black individuals from pools, you have the makings of a generational issue.

“Due to the provision of thousands of large, really appealing swimming pools for white Americans, those enabled the development of a vibrant swimming culture,” University of Montana professor Dr. Jamie Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America said in a recent interview with USA Today on the issue. “But no such vibrant-widespread swimming culture developed among Black Americans because they didn’t have access to pools.”

In June 1964, James Brock dumped acid into the water at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Fla. He was trying to disrupt swimmers who were protesting the hotel’s whites-only policy.

And there was born a stereotype, and the myth that Black individuals could not swim. 

We know that the drowning rates for Black individuals, is far higher, three times higher in some age categories, than it is for white people.

According to USA Swimming, 64% of Black youth cannot swim, a number that far surpasses statistics for white youth.

But this wasn’t a genetic or physical determinant, it stemmed from a generational lack of access, prejudice, and anti-Black racism constructing this issue.

In 1976, Enith Brigitha became the first Black person to win an Olympic medal in swimming, and Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win Olympic gold in the pool in 2016. 

These are wonderful and welcomed accomplishments, but it doesn’t change the white washing of pools across the continent, in particular at the competitive ranks. 

Similar to competitive hockey (which also suffered racially from segregation laws related to arenas), the cost to participate in competitive swim programs at private facilities, at least at the elite level is prohibitive. For example, locally, the top competitive tier costs $2030, which does not include travel commitments. Other clubs in Ontario run upwards of $4000 for a single season.

Let’s be clear, swimming is not evil. Swimming is wonderful. It’s fun, it’s healthy, it’s relaxing. But we can’t forget the racism that BIPoC communities faced related to pools, and swimming.

Who taught you to swim? Was it a parent? Did a relative take you to swimming lessons at a community pool? Did you have a pool or did a neighbour?

Now imagine your parent was not allowed to go to that pool in their youth, and was never taught how to swim. Parents who don’t have experience or skills in certain fields, are less likely to teach those items to their children. In all sports, bloodlines are considered in recruiting, rightly or wrongly. If you played soccer, or baseball, or hockey, or swam competitively as a youth, you’re more likely to put your child into those activities.

And this is where a generational gap has formed. Anti-Black racism, generational oppression and prejudice, leads to future inequality, barriers to access, and lower participation.

The day of reckoning for sport has arrived. As we know, it’s no longer enough to simply ‘not be racist,’ we need to actively be ‘anti-racist.’

For that physical step to occur, for us as a sporting community to begin to open doors for all youth to have equal opportunities in sport – sport that is fun and safe and healthy – we need to recognize the systemic racism, and systems of oppression that have brought us here.

As Wiltse says, “Socio-political discrimination leads to a lack of access which leads to whites swimming in much higher numbers than Blacks swimming. Then it becomes cultural perceptions, then perceptions of physiological difference. It’s watching the process of racism work.”

For swimming, this cycle continues. What started as segregation, became a stereotype, became a socio-economic divide, and became generations of Black youth continuing to be barred from the pool, even if no longer by law.

Black Lives Matter, and we need to ensure they do. The drowning rates of Black youth compared to their white counterparts screams of the continued devaluation and lack of protection for Black individuals.

Now decades after integration, it’s time to do the actual work. Programming needs to be in place, and priority given, to enable Black youth to safely experience swimming.

Undoubtedly if we do, we’ll see more Black athletes excelling on the competitive swimming stage, and more importantly, we’ll see safer access, and lower drowning rates for Black youth in pools and waterways.

By Ian Kennedy

Line Change is an article series produced by through the contributions and consultation of various authors and academics, looking at social issues in sport. The series, which aims to open discussion with sports fans, will focus on issues of inequality, and serve as a portion of our anti-oppression education and reporting. Line Change will look at issues related to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, socioeconomic divides, and much more, as they relate to sport and athletics.

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