African American children are more likely to drown in swimming pools than white American children. Jeff Wiltse, Professor of History at the University of Montana and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, has researched how this shocking statistic in racial disparity is rooted in America’s discriminatory past at public swimming pools.
Wiltse recently spoke with Connecticut Public Radio’s Lucy Nalpathanchil about how this problem still divides across America’s racial lines, how African Americans suffered the most, and how the disparity will separate class lines in the future.
On the drowning rates of black children versus white children
In general, black Americans are half as likely to know how to swim as white Americans, and black children are about three times more likely to drown than white children are. This is a significant disparity in both swimming and drowning rates across this social line.
It’s past discrimination and access to swimming pools, swim lessons, and swimming teams. A widespread part of white Americans learned how to swim historically in the 20th century, whereas, because of restricted swimming pools and swimming lessons, swimming never became as broadly popular or common among African Americans.
On how America’s past created this modern day problem
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, cities throughout the country built literally thousands of swimming pools. [They were] large leisure swimming pools that were larger than football fields. They were generally opened to whites. As a percentage, black Americans didn’t learn how to swim and didn’t become part of the recreational culture.
This pattern repeated in the 1950s and 60s. There were literally tens of thousands of private club pools that were developed in the suburbs. If the big city recreational pools were restrictive to black Americans, then they were totally off limits to African Americans in the suburbs. Once again, white Americans had easy access to swimming pools, as black Americans did not have access.
On how gender integration led to racial segregation
Prior to gender segregation, blacks and whites swam together. In lots of my research, cities like New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston--blacks and whites swam together. But when cities allowed males and females to swim together, that’s when public officials segregated pools on racial lines, in large part because they didn’t want black men swimming with white women in such intimate spaces.
On what happened to public pools after desegregation
Racial desegregation of pools began in the 1940s and continued to the 1960s. In the south, cities just closed their public pools instead of allowing mix race use. In many southern cities, there were literally no public pools. In the north, the response was more nuanced. When a pool that was previously for whites only became racially desegregated, white swimmers en masse abandoned it. I found case after case that white attendance would drop 90-95 percent when black swimmers started using it.
Overall usage of these large resort pools started to attract fewer swimmers so cities stopped investing money in them. Over the course of a few years, these pools became dilapidated, they required significant maintenance, cities simply refused to pay the cost of rebuilding them, and [they] ended up closing down. In the 1960s and 1970s, you see a mass wave of public pool closings, which, again, restricts African American access as whites could swim at private pools.
On how the swimming disparity is also a generational issue
Past discrimination continues to shape swimming and drowning rates today because swimming is a cultural habit. You can think of it in generational terms. If you grew up going to a pool and if it was an important part of your upbringing, you tend to pass that along to your children. If you grew up not swimming, or with a fear of water, and a sense that swimming pools were not a place where you belonged, then you didn’t take your kids to pools and that fear of water gets passed generationally.
On the recent resurgence of public funding for swimming recreation
Access to swimming pools today is not restricted to racial lines, but, instead, class lines. Middle and upper-class Americans of whatever racial identity have easier access to swimming pools, swimming lessons, and swim teams than poor or working class Americans. Casting forward in time, 15 to 20 years from now, I think we’re going to find that swimming and drowning disparities will show more clearly among class lines than race lines. But to the extent to which people of color are overrepresented among the poor and working classes—we’ll still see a racial dynamic to it.
If you’re a Connecticut resident and you want to give your children swimming lessons, visit LEAP in New Haven. LEAP is a nonprofit program dedicated to teaching low-income children. This year, LEAP will look to teach 300 kids to swim for free through afterschool and summer camp programs. LEAP also trains lifeguards and swim instructors.
This is an edited interview from the May 17, 2018 episode of Where We Live. Where We Live airs every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 9:00 am and 7:00 pm.