Racial Disparities in Swimming Rates: History Informs the Present

Startling statistics from a study done by the University of Memphis and USA Swimming have been reported: about 68.9 percent of African American children are unable to adequately swim, compared to 40 percent of white children with low swimming skills. While the disproportionate rates of swimming skills can be traced to early 20th-century segregation, the question of why this disparity persists in 2010 remains unanswered.

Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America provides explanations to the problem by going back in history and analyzing the origins and shifts in public pool trends over time. In response to the recent statistics, Wiltse wrote a piece for the St. Louis Dispatch weighing in on the swimming issue. He says:

The racial discrimination during the 1920s and 1930s casts a long shadow. As a result of limited access to swimming facilities and the austere design of “Jim Crow” pools, swimming did not become integral to the recreation and sports culture within African-American communities.

By contrast, swimming became astoundingly popular among whites during the interwar years and developed into a self-perpetuating culture that persists to the present. Each successive generation of white parents takes its children to swimming pools and teaches the children to swim. Parents do that because that is what they did as children.

The rest of Wiltse’s commentary can be found here.

For more information about Contested Waters and the history of America’s swimming pools, you can listen to or read several interviews with Wiltse. The paperback edition of Contested Waters was just published this spring.