Racism is Why Most Black People Can’t Swim

Educator Barnes and her sons at Community Healthplex for swim lessons.

It is clear from our current political climate that some Americans are in denial about the far reaching hand of racism in this country and how it affects people of color today. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, “nearly 64 percent of African-American children have no/low swimming ability, putting them at risk for drowning.”  The reason so many black children cannot swim is racism.

In the article “Swimming While Black” the author states:

Swimming and African Americans are not a classic pairing either. Imagine a pool party. The Black people mingle around the pool, while the white people are in the pool.  African Americans’ antipathy towards swimming is rooted in segregation and racism. It was not so long ago that public beaches and pools in the United States displayed “Whites Only” signs. Blacks who entered these beaches were chased off or got a good beating. Pools were drained if a Black person got in. One Black person contaminated the whole thing.

The author also points out that even after black people were allowed to go to any pool that white people would find ways to discourage black people from entering the pool.  “June 1964. Black children integrate the swimming pool of the Monson Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. To force them out, the manager of the motel pours acid into the water.”

In the VICE News article “Most black kids can’t swim, and segregation is to blame,” 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,” added further background:

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.

Why would black people even bother to go to a pool let alone learn how to swim when they could be threatened, have acid thrown in the water, or called racial slurs?  When your grandparents can’t swim, your parents probably won’t learn how to swim. I did not need to read any articles to know this. All I had to do is recall my own experiences and speak to my family members.

I’m 35 and I can’t swim.  My younger sisters can’t swim.  My mom and dad can’t swim. My maternal and paternal grandparents can’t swim.  When I asked my dad if he could swim, he said, “Where could I go to swim? I would have been chased out of there.  All we had in our neighborhood was a wading pool.  We couldn’t go to Garfield Park because we weren’t welcome.”  Because my parents could not swim, they weren’t thinking about taking us to the pool during the summers and not being able to swim has caused me some negative experiences.

In fifth grade, the end of the year party was a field trip to a swimming pool.  It was my least favorite day of the school year. I was part of desegregation busing, so there weren’t many black kids enrolled in my school.  I don’t recall any of the black kids swimming during the party. What made matters worse is my eyesight. I am severely nearsighted. My teacher would not let me get into the water with my glasses on nor would she let me not participate.  I had to get in the pool. Do you know how much it sucks to try to hit a beach ball when you can’t see that well? I eventually just walked to the corner and stood there until we left for the day.

In high school, we had to take swimming as part of gym class.  We had to do a test on the first day. Most of the black kids, including myself, just walked across the pool during the test because we could not swim. After the test, we were put into groups based on ability.  I was in the beginners group and every kid in this group was black. Only a few of us made enough progress to move to another group. Besides my vision people a barrier, the teacher was another barrier. It is the only time in school that I yelled at a teacher.  She kept calling us slackers and didn’t understand why we were afraid. She also kept mispronouncing my name. I snapped and told her why I didn’t like her or the class. When I got home, I told my mom what happened. My mom called the teacher.  I don’t know what my mom said just like I don’t know what my mom said when I had a similar incident about my name being mispronounced in 7th grade, but the teacher apologized to me the next time I had her for class. I earned a D on my report card for that quarter. I was completing coursework for the academic honors diploma, which I did earn, but I was devastated to have a D for that quarter listed on my transcript because I couldn’t master a skill that I had a real fear in learning.

Fast forward to today.  I am the mom of 7 1/2 (yes the 1/2 matters) twin boys and they can’t swim.  We signed them up for swim lessons when they were three but it didn’t go well. My husband can swim.  We went to the same high school, but he was a year ahead. He started in the beginners group but learned how to swim.  He was so good that he was even asked to try out for the swim team, but he declined because he didn’t want to be the only black kid.  In this particular swim class, the parents had to get in the pool. My son James was with my husband and Jerry was with me. James was doing fine, but Jerry was crying during every class and wanted out of the pool.  I’m pretty sure my low key complaining and comments about him slipping out of my hands was not helping the situation. When they were five, we signed them up for another class.  James made more progress, but he still couldn’t swim. Jerry made progress too. He would actually stay in the water. He didn’t do anything but at least he stayed in the pool this time. It probably helped that parents especially me didn’t have to get into the pool.  My kids still can’t swim and I still can’t swim.

I don’t want my sons to be embarrassed on a school trip or avoid a party at a pool.  Even worse, I don’t want them to drown. I also knew that I had to be a role model, so I needed to learn too.  First, I talked to my optometrist about my eyesight being a barrier. He sent me to see a consultant for LASIK.  There are two types of LASIK that can be done and I didn’t qualify for either type. Apparently, you can get permanent contacts.  I didn’t qualify. It just seems weird, so I probably wouldn’t have done it even if I did qualify. The only option left was custom prescription goggles.  My vision is different in both eyes so I had to find a place that would customize two different lens; all prescription swim google places don’t do this.  

Next, I had to find a place to learn how to swim.  I checked out Community Healthplex which is super close to my home and they offered private instructors.  I hired a person to teach my boys and me at the same time. It is harder to quit when young people are watching you.  Yesterday, Saturday, September 29, we had our first lesson. When the swim instructor said we were going to work on floating on our backs, that is when I would have quit.  I had a bad incident in high school. There’s no need to describe that here. My boys just tried it so I knew I should just at least try it. I floated on my back for two seconds.  That’s better than one, right?  

Racism is still a barrier today.  We know this from the event involving the lady named Pool Patrol Paula.  Racism is still a barrier, but I know the 64% cannot be lowered if black people don’t sign up their children for swim lessons.  Some of my black friends kids can swim even though they still can’t. I was honestly perfectly content dying as a non swimmer, but I want to be part of changing the narrative that black people don’t swim.


  1. Don’t give up.  Keep up a good example for the boys.  We need to learn how to swim!!I am cheering for all of you.  You can do it.Hugs,Aunt Sue 

      1. You can do it you are a fighter and you won’t give up think about your writing the story you write if you had gave up and stop writing you would not be traveling to these different places if you had gave up but keep trying and you will be swimming I know you can do it.

  2. I love how you managed make such a strong call-to-action in your final sentence.

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