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Most black kids can't swim, and segregation is to blame

A history of racial discrimination at pools may be the reason black Americans can’t swim

In 2014, the CDC found that an 11-year-old black child is 10 times more likely to drown than a white child the same age. The notion that "black people can't swim” may sound like a stereotype, but it's a real disparity and it's rooted in a history of discriminatory access to swimming pools.

This summer alone has produced three high-profile incidents of white Americans calling or threatening to call the police on black pool goers.


In South Carolina, a white woman was charged with multiple accounts of assault for accosting a 15-year-old black boy and the police officer who responded to the incident. In North Carolina, a man lost his job after a video of him calling the police on a woman who refused to show him her identification. And a white property manager at a Memphis apartment complex lost her job after calling the police on a man for wearing socks in the pool.

These are just a few of the most recent incidents in a long history of discriminatory access at American swimming pools, going back almost 100 years. And before this year, they didn't tend to end in the arrest or punishment of the white individual involved. So VICE News spoke with Jeff Wiltse, a professor of history at the University of Montana, and the author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,” who provided some context.

“It was socially normal for blacks and whites to swim together at these public pools during the late 19th and early 20th century, but that all changed during the 1920s and 1930s when cities opened up large resort-like pools,” Wiltse said. “That permitted males and females to use them together.”

Wiltse said that it was at that point that white swimmers and public officials imposed racial segregation, largely because most whites did not want to allow black men to interact with white women at such intimate public spaces.


Pools were desegregated after World War II, frequently by court order, but like America's public schools, integration in the water was more of a legal concept than a cultural one. In fact, racial desegregation of public pools rarely led to any meaningful sort of interracial use, said Wiltse.

“In general, whites abandoned public pools that black swimmers started to use,” he explained. But even as white flight increased, black participation dropped.

“Swimming became broadly popular within white communities and was passed down from generation to generation. Because of African-Americans' more restricted access, swimming did not become a broadly popular activity among black families.”

In 2017, USA Swimming, the governing body for the sport of swimming in the U.S., found that 64 percent of African-American children have low or no swimming ability.

And according to their data, black children and their parents are three times more fearful of drowning than white children and their parents. That's something Dezria Holmes hopes will stop with her generation.

Holmes knows how to swim, but she wouldn’t call herself a strong swimmer. She’s trying to change that for her children, 12-year-old Madison and 7-year-old Mason. Both are enrolled in a Chicago swimming program launched by USA Swimming, Chicago Park District, and Illinois Swimming to get a more diverse group of young people in the water.

“My grandparents couldn't swim because of segregation,” said Holmes. “So when I saw the opportunity for my daughter to swim, and then my parents were able to see their granddaughter swim. They were actually crying, because no one in our family swims like Madison. So to be afforded this opportunity has just been amazing.”

This segment originally aired August 29, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.