Panel Paper: The Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination

Friday, November 9, 2012 : 9:45 AM
Adams (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jeff Wiltse, University of Montana

Recent studies have found that black Americans are much less likely to know how to swim than white Americans and much more likely to drown. Specifically, a 2010 study found that only 30 percent of African-American children know how to swim compared to 60 percent of white children. A 2008 study found that black children are nearly three times more likely to drown than white children. This paper argues that past racial discrimination in access to public swimming pools and the more recent decline in the provision of urban public pools account for part of the current disparity in swimming and drowning rates between blacks and whites.

Swimming as a recreational activity boomed in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s, when cities and towns throughout the United States built thousands of swimming pools. This pool-building spree—part of which occurred during the economic scarcity of the Great Depression—helped popularize recreational swimming. Whereas relatively few Americans swam during the early twentieth century, tens of millions of Americans flocked to municipal pools each year during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Millions of Americans also participated in swim lessons offered at the pools. By the end of the 1930s, swimming had become the most popular form of summertime recreation in many American communities.

All Americans, however, did not have access to these pools. Public officials and white swimmers throughout the United States segregated and excluded black Americans. Racial discrimination was pervasive in the North as well as the South. As a result of limited access to public pools, swimming did not become integral to the recreation and sports culture within African American communities. By contrast, swimming became astoundingly popular among whites and developed into a self-perpetuating culture that persists to the present. No such self-perpetuating swim culture developed among black Americans because they were denied access to municipal pools when recreational swimming became so popular.

Since public pools were racially desegregated in the 1950s and 1960s, they have become a much lower public priority than they had been during the 1920s and 1930s. Cities throughout the country have funded relatively few new pools, let existing pools fall into disrepair, and closed many pools in order to reduce budget deficits. As a result, recent generations of urban youth have had less access to swim lessons and relatively safe swimming environments than previous generations. The absence of appealing public pools in many urban neighborhoods means that poor and working-class children—many of whom are black and Latino—don’t learn to swim and are left to plunge into dangerous and unsupervised natural water.

This combination of past discrimination and more recent parsimony in funding public pools helps explain why black Americans are half as likely to know how to swim as whites and three times more likely to drown.

Full Paper: