"More Sensitive Than Schools"
July 18, 2012 7:07 PM   Subscribe

When Cullen Jones competes in London at the end of this month, he'll be only the third African-American to represent the US on an Olympic swimming team- and he'll continue to challenge the stereotype that black people don't swim. posted by Snarl Furillo (25 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Those stats are startling, first heard about this in 2010, when six black kids died one after the other, trying to save a drowning friend. It's a terrible legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:25 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I realize that I'm stepping into a minefield by even asking this question, but is the problem really that black people can't swim? Or that poor people can't swim (because they're less likely to have access to pools, to the situations in which one learns to swim such as summer camps, and so on), and black people are more likely to be poor?
posted by madcaptenor at 8:01 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Madcaptenor, the NPR link in "explored the racialized history of American swimming pools" is probably the best one for answering that question. Wiltse's history makes a pretty convincing argument that there was widespread public support for municipal pools in the early part of the 21st century, when pools served poor whites and European immigrants, and that that support declined in the second half of the 21st century, when pools were integrated and began to serve primarily poor black people, so it is very much a racialized issue.

In addition, the US Swimming study which found that black children were unlikely to know how to swim also found that black children were unlikely to be enrolled in swim lessons not because their parents couldn't afford them, but because many black parents themselves couldn't swim and were terrified of letting their children in the water at all.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:08 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Lia Neal is also black and will be swimming the 4 x 100 relay. This may be the first time two black swimmers have gone together. I'm black and swim competitively and it's something you still really notice. Most swimmers want everyone to swim, so at least there is good support in the community, even if the gap to getting there is wide.
posted by dame at 8:18 PM on July 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't think the NPR link is actually that convincing when it comes to the issue madcaptenor raised, simply because it doesn't address the question at all. That we lost public swimming pools due to racism doesn't mean that class hasn't become the driving factor in access to swimming now. Of course, one might then ask why there are, for instance, double the number of black children living in poverty than there are white children and we're back to racism anyway.
posted by hoyland at 8:20 PM on July 18, 2012

I grew up near the ocean, so being able to swim was something people were just expected to know. I was surprised when, as a child, I read stories about people who couldn't swim. It seemed odd to me, but I realize now that it may not be that unusual. In regards to the 70% statistic, what percentage of the general population can't swim?
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 8:24 PM on July 18, 2012

I grew up in a small town in Texas, and I never heard the fallacy that black people were poor swimmers until I got to college. It was in an African American Studies course, and we were reading Zora Neale Hurston, who described her hometown of Eatonville, FL as "the city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse". A classmate had to explain to me what she was getting at about the 300 good swimmers, because in all of the f'ed up descriptions and characterizations of black people I heard from racist relatives as a kid, black people not able to swim was never one of them. In my hometown, there were two public pools, both in low-income, majority black neighborhoods, and I promise you they were full every day of the hot Texas summer. And not by white kids, who were more likely to have a pool at home (or swim at a neighbor's house, as I did), or have a membership at the local country club or at the Y.

So anyway, good on Cullen Jones and good on Lia Neal, and good on you, dame. It's well past time for this ridiculous stereotype to die.
posted by donajo at 8:41 PM on July 18, 2012

I realize that I'm stepping into a minefield by even asking this question, but is the problem really that black people can't swim? Or that poor people can't swim (because they're less likely to have access to pools, to the situations in which one learns to swim such as summer camps, and so on), and black people are more likely to be poor?

Have no fear in asking questions like this, my friend! As long as you do it in a sincere manner, someone will try to help you, as folks have already done and as I'm about to try to do now, though there's an excellent chance I'll completely botch my explanation. :-)

I think de facto and de jure racism w/r/t economics and access to pools have played a part in the statistics re: black Americans and swimming, and I also believe there are a few other factors that aren't frequently considered: hair and skin.

As has been noted in various books and films on the topic, the chemicals and processes that a significant number of black women (and a non-trivial number of black men) use to straighten and style their hair don't play well with water. This makes the total immersion necessary to really swim an unlikely occurrence for them. I saw behaviors and heard comments about this growing up -- though we all would go to pools, swimming holes, and the beach, friends and relatives with any kind of processing applied to their hair would only kind of splash around in the water and would unleash Hell on you if you ever dunked them beneath it.

As for skin, sadly, when I was growing up in Ft. Lauderdale in the 70's - 80s, a lot of black people, men and women alike, carefully monitored their exposure to the sun because they didn't want to darken their skin. That meant not much time at the beach and outdoor pools -- in South Florida of all places! Heart-breaking to think about now, but accepted without much comment back then.

So I think that when you combine these things with the limited access to pools and swimming holes in the first place, you end up with the kinds of statistics we see for black Americans w/r/t swimming.

Two final things: 1) I don't want to give the impression that what I wrote above is true for all black people in America. These are merely some conclusions I've reached thinking back to my childhood when I've spent some brain CPU cycles on this topic. Other black peoples' mileage may vary. 2) I think this is changing quite a bit as black parents start to realize the danger of letting their children go near the water without a basic swimming skill set.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:49 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's well past time for this ridiculous stereotype to die.

Actually, donajo, the whole "black people can't swim" stereotype has always been comforting to me. It reinforces my strongly-held belief that racists are so unbelievably stupid that anything they say is indistinguishable from absurdism.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 8:50 PM on July 18, 2012

lord__wolf: This makes the total immersion necessary to really swim an unlikely occurrence for them.

Charlayne Woodard's autobiographical one-woman play Neat has a poignant, funny scene set in the 1960s when she's in junior high school. It's just after swim class, and from observing the other girls (mostly American Jewish girls) reacting to something momentous, something astonishing, something in her vicinity...behind her? No. It's not behind her and not in her vicinity. They're reacting to something about her. It gradually dawns on her what swimming has done to the cutting edge, envy-inspiring hairdo her mother had styled for her that morning...
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:54 PM on July 18, 2012

When he was a poor, sharecropping kid, dad almost died when a boat he was in turned over. Consequently, all six of us kids went to red cross swim class.
As an Officers Brat, I couldn't get the summer jobs my NCO kid friends got, so I spent the summers in the pool, hating not working and not having my own money.
Didn't hear of this stereotype till after he retired, but always thought it funny for one reason:

The Caribbean.

Black people can't swim? You need to get out more.
posted by djrock3k at 9:56 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm just happy that my predominantly black neighborhood in DC just opened up a gorgeous new public facility with a beautiful pool this Summer, and the kids have been filling it up like crazy. So the kids around here are swimming, anyway.

(I grew up in Houston, where neighborhood swim teams were the summertime thing that all the kids did, because being outside and not swimming wasn't very compelling to anyone in that kind of heat.)
posted by Navelgazer at 10:13 PM on July 18, 2012

One thing that occurs to me, that may or may not play a factor re: race vs. class, is that I'm pretty sure a majority of poor whites are rural whereas a majority of poor blacks are urban. In rural areas, places to swim are *probably* more plentiful than in urban areas, particularly now with budget cuts leading to the closing of public pools. In some areas of the country, a backyard pool is conceivable for a family that is what I'd guess you'd call "upper middle class" but in urban areas you'd have to be seriously wealthy to be able to afford a backyard large enough for a pool.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:26 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Growing up in rural/suburbian '60's white land-locked America, there were pools everywhere, even for working/middle class kids like me. The development where my aunt had her summer house in the Poconos (affordable at the time on the combined salary of a teacher and a secretary) had a clubhouse and a pool. Then there were always the public pools and backyard pools of our neighbors and relatives. All of this depended on 1) families' incomes and leisure time being adequate to buy and maintain a pool 2) municipal tax dollars and/or 3) enough community interest to sustain a pool for the group. Can you see where this is going?

I wouldn't be surprised if the protracted bad economy and teahadism cause an uptick, in coming years, in the number of white kids who can't swim.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:35 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't hear this stereotype until the Beijing Olympics. I was visiting family and we were sitting around watching a relay. I never really caught the first comment, but my uncle sagely replies, "True, since black people can't swim well."

It took me a few moments to recover from the shock. I don't think I had ever been so aware of the hypocracy of racism until that moment. An Olympic competitor, the best of the best, can't swim? An entire segment of the human race, which resides on all 6 continents and countless islands, simply lacks the ability? Is he fucking serious?!?

Just as my grandmother was finishing her nod of agreement, I found myself saying loudly, "Wow... Did you actually just say that?" And thus began my continuing campaign to unappologetically call out my relatives on their racist bullshit.
posted by Vysharra at 8:12 AM on July 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Re: swimming and the general populace, I swim daily at a nearby State Park during the summer. There are designated areas for shallow, deep and lane (lap) swimming. My observations: very few people I see in the water can swim. Most, regardless of ethnicity, merely stand about in waist-deep water and converse. Same with children, and although there are plenty around, I almost never see parents trying to teach their kids anything resembling water survival skills. Also, lane swimmers are with few exceptions older people (over 50) and there are perhaps three of these per 100 "waders" at any given time.

I seriously wonder if swimming is something either no longer taught or no longer seen as a skill worth developing/using. At any rate it's baffling to me how few people I see that are able to complete even one lap in deep water. I know I'm in snow country (central NY State) but this is also Finger Lakes territory and there are pools everywhere.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:01 AM on July 19, 2012

Once, while very bored and waiting for a school to start up, I was assigned to be a lifeguard in a swimming class for prospective naval aircrewmen. Since the Navy's planes and aircraft tend to operate over water, sailors who are in them have to have basic water survival skills - dropping from a great height, swimming underwater, treading water, floating. The final test was a long-distance swim.

We saw all kinds - kids who grew up surfing and swimming, and who were supremely confident in the water. Kids whose idea of 'swimming' was standing chest deep and splashing around. We taught them basic swimming strokes and got them compotent enough to pass the tests (in flightsuit, helmet and boots, no less). The black students tended to be worse swimmers, as did the urban students. The best swimmers came from the coasts. I think part of it is access to pools, and part of it is cultural norms about swimming. My mother insisted that my sister and I learn to swim, at a very early age, and we spent summers at various beaches, riding waves and playing in the surf.

The worst swimmer I ever saw was an American Indian, from way up north in Alaska. Just couldn't get comfortable in the water.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:26 AM on July 19, 2012

the whole "black people can't swim" stereotype has always been comforting to me. It reinforces my strongly-held belief that racists are so unbelievably stupid that anything they say is indistinguishable from absurdism.

My stepmother tried to teach me that the reason black people were so much better at basketball was that they had an extra bone in their feet that made them jump better. Countless hours at the library trying to show her how stupid that was is probably what sparked my deep and abiding fascination with the human body. She also believed the swimming stereotype, and when I challenged her as to why that extra bone she thought was there didn't also help with swimming, there was usually a lot of yelling.

It was really hard to take anything she said seriously after all that.
posted by rhiannonstone at 9:29 AM on July 19, 2012

You know, I probably could have phrased that better. First nations person? Native American? I would have been more specific if I had the specifics.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:40 AM on July 19, 2012

I know this is all anecdotal and all, but when I was in boot camp for the Navy, some of the other recruits didn't know how to swim at all or were poor swimmers. It did tend to be the black recruits, I must admit, even the one that was our Recruit Division Commander. When asked why he didn't know how to swim, he said his mom wouldn't really let him near the water.

My theory is that due to a lot of factors like racism, legacy of Jim Crow, tendency to live in more urban versus rural areas has combined to create a present day cultural aversion to water. It's not overwhelming (plenty of the best swimmers are black, as was pointed out), but it is noticeable. Where once black children were kept from swimming pools, now there is just a general cultural disassociation with swimming, and the lack of lakes, ponds, seas, and rivers in many urban environments doesn't help.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 12:19 PM on July 19, 2012

And I also think access when you are small, having your parents take you, can be a big deal. I am comfortable in the water because I grew up in a swimming family and could swim when I could walk. Most folks i know who learn later in life always seem just a bit less comfortable and have a harder go of it.
posted by dame at 1:38 PM on July 19, 2012

Urban poor people often drown in pools and rivers because they don't have access to the swimming lessons of their well-off counterparts. It has nothing to do with skin colors. Racists are so fucking stupid.
posted by Renoroc at 3:19 PM on July 19, 2012

Dame, I was surprised to see how much that cultural factor, of your parents teaching you and splashing around with you, was cited in the different studies on swim proficiency. A lot of the studies pointed out that there were a few decades when urban black people didn't have access to pools, and that was long enough to create a chain reaction that we still see the effects of today.

Bonus for people who want to learn more about Lia Neal: a piece in the New York Times about her.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:36 PM on July 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wonder if urban and rural poor people are more likely to drown not just because of some of the socioeconomic factors noted in this thread w/r/t swimming lessons but also because the places they do have access to for water-based recreation tend to be those that have no lifeguards or poorly trained lifeguards.

I've got no data to back this up, but I'd be willing to bet that the sad cases where young people drown in rock quarries/abandoned mines cluster toward the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

Then there's the case of the overcrowded urban swimming pools with overworked lifeguards, where small children can drown while surrounded by adults. Didn't feel like googling any of those sorts of stories.

Which is not to say that upper-middle class and above folks are exclusively swimming at private resorts with their own personal lifeguards and EMTs on stand-by, but I do wonder if maybe the disparity in swimming skills isn't all that great, it's just that we hear more about urban and rural poor who drown because they (in my youth, "we") tend to swim in places without support staff.
posted by lord_wolf at 3:42 PM on July 19, 2012

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