Below the Surface: America’s Lasting Legacy of Racial Disparities in Swimming
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water
God’s a-going to trouble the water
As the world came together over the last two weeks to celebrate the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, we had the opportunity to witness many incredible moments of camaraderie and feats of human strength. However, we also witnessed many disparities evident in the Games — specifically the continued racial inequities in the white-dominated sport of swimming.
Before the Olympics, FINA, the international swimming federation, rejected the use of “Soul Cap” in the competition. Described as an extra-large swim cap for “long and voluminous hair, ideal for dreadlocks, extensions, weaves and more,” the banning of the Soul Cap represents yet another barrier for people of color.
Rightfully, this decision prompted backlash across the swimming community. In response, the FINA governing body stated that the continued review of the Soul Cap and similar products “are part of wider initiatives aimed at ensuring there are no barriers to participation in swimming, which is both a sport and a vital life skill.”
Regardless, the Soul Cap did not make an appearance at this year’s Games.
The intersection of aquatic activities and racism is deeply embedded in our nation’s psyche.
Unfortunately, this is just another recent injustice in competitive and recreational swimming. For example, in 2017 the American Red Cross, the nation’s ‘first responder,’ found themselves in need of rescue.
The century-old institution was in the news not for its relief efforts on behalf of victims displaced due to the wildfires in California, or what was described as thousand-year flooding in parts of the United States. Instead, this august organization was triaging self-inflicted damage because of its “Be Cool, Follow the Rules" poster from a 2014 safe-swimming campaign. The white children in the poster are labeled as behaving in a “cool” way, while children of color are depicted as defying pool rules and are labeled as “not cool.”
Many, including myself, found the poster insensitive and unenlightened at the very least — and at worst perpetuating racist stereotypes. When I showed the poster to a white friend who works in media, her immediate response was: “What were they thinking?”
The larger question is how something so racially insensitive could have ever been deemed ‘appropriate’ for use in the first place. Were the individuals who created and approved the poster not cognizant that Black children and their families had faced discrimination at America’s public pools and beaches for generations? Were they not aware that Black people had been denied swimming lessons and barred from public pools? That those who did want to swim, especially young people, were forced to do so in more dangerous locations? Stories about drownings abound for generations of African Americans, and for many, a fear of the water has not subsided.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported recently that nearly 4,000 people drown in the United States every year, and another estimated 8,000 are treated for nonfatal drowning injuries. For children, drowning is the second leading cause of death after birth defects, with three dying every day, and it is the second leading cause of accidental death after vehicle crashes for those ages 1 to 14.
The CDC reports that drowning death rates have declined by 32 percent in the past decade; water safety experts say that is not enough. A June 2021 CDC report said that long-standing racial disparities in drowning deaths have not improved since 1999. According to the report, Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to drown than white Americans.
Stories about drownings abound for generations of African Americans, and for many, a fear of the water has not subsided.
The intersection of aquatic activities and racism is deeply embedded in our nation’s psyche. In 1964, civil rights demonstrators jumped into a segregated pool at the Monson Motor Lodge because the manager refused to let Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his guests enter the Monson Restaurant. The incident is well detailed in Clennon L. King’s documentary “A Passage to St. Augustine.” An iconic picture shows the lodge’s owner Jimmy Brock, pouring acid into the pool and on the demonstrators.
A report as recent as 2020, conducted by the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, said these disparities are a lasting legacy of Jim Crow laws. For decades, Black Americans were barred from public swimming pools and beaches, preventing many of them from learning how to swim and engaging in competitive aquatic sports.
It is often difficult to find regulation-size pools for swimming and diving in Black neighborhoods. Many communities have turned to splash parks as a cheaper alternative to maintaining pools, which means children never get a chance to truly swim. As a result, Black children have traditionally been less likely to take up swimming as a recreational activity or sport.
So to FINA, the Red Cross, and organizations like it, I say:
While you respond to and acknowledge backlash against your racist policies, you would do well to acknowledge the lessons of history. Then put those to use going forward to combat the implicit bias and systemic racism that are very often at the heart of these matters — seemingly at the water’s edge, and just below the surface.
Gary Bailey, DHL, MSW, ACSW is the Assistant Dean for Community Engagement and Social Justice in the College of Social Service, Policy and Practice at Simmons University. He is co-chair of the President's Advisory Council for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He is a Professor of Practice at the School of Social Work and the School of Nursing and Health Sciences. He is a past Board chair of the AIDS Action Committee-Massachusetts; and was a member of the AIDS Action Advisory Council.