The USA Swimming Foundation reports that 64% of black children can’t swim, compared to 40% of white children. Studies also show that the drowning rate is 5.5 times higher for black children than white children.
Why is that? It comes down to decades of limited access to aquatics. Read on for a look at how history has made its mark on the black swimming community today, and what Tankproof is doing to change the narrative!
Looking Back at History
Long before West Africans were enslaved, many were good swimmers and underwater divers. Communities were often located along riverbanks, near lakes, or close to the ocean and swimming was a part of daily life.
Related: Where are All the Black Swimmers?
But that changed over the next few hundred years, as slavery and segregation limited black Americans’ access to pools and beaches. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many public pools closed and wealthy, white neighborhoods saw an increase in private swim clubs, leaving many black Americans without reliable access to a pool.
The Effects of Economic Inequality
While pools are no longer segregated, systemic issues, such as economic inequality, still limit black Americans’ access to aquatics. Lower income can result in difficulties finding transportation to the pool, the inability to pay for swimming lessons, or simply no pools in the neighborhood. And while people of all races can be low income, this especially applies to black people.
According to the Economic Policy Institute’s 2019 State of Working America Wages Report, African-Americans make an average of 27.5% less than white Americans. Recent studies have shown that the wealth gap between black and white families is very similar to what it was back in 1968, and the height of the civil rights movement.
Related: Diversity in Aquatics: 6 Ways You Can Make a Difference
These disparities in income and pool access have affected black communities for generations. The USA Swimming Foundation reported that if a parent or guardian can’t swim, there’s only a 13% chance that their child will learn to swim.
This domino effect has contributed to less diverse representation at all levels of the sport. And representation makes a difference.
The Importance of Representation
In a USA Swimming Foundation survey, 76% of parents said that their children would be more interested in swimming if they saw a talented swimmer that looked like them.
Thankfully, representation is improving. In the last 20 years, black swimmers have been doing amazing things!
In 2004, Maritza Correia was the first Puerto Rican of African descent to make the U.S. Olympic swim team. She also became the first black American to set an American record in swimming, breaking the women’s 50-yard free record at the 2002 NCAAs.
After an incredible performance in the men’s 400-meter freestyle relay, Cullen Jones became the first black man to hold a world record in swimming.
In 2012, Lia Neal won bronze in the women’s 400 free relay, making history as the first African American woman to swim in an Olympic final.
And, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win an individual Olympic gold.
These athletes are paving the way for a new generation of black swimmers, but there is still much more work to be done.
Making a Difference
Beyond individual athletes, there are also some incredible organizations working to improve access to swimming for black people in the United States. We want to introduce you to one: Meet Tankproof!
Based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tankproof strives to empower the black community by providing access and equity in aquatics. The organization’s certified instructors travel the country, teaching free swimming lessons to under-served children as young as 5 years old!
Brothers Torrence and Thurman Thomas founded the organization after learning that minorities are at a higher risk of drowning than white people – black children are 5.5 times more likely to drown than white children.
At age 10, Thurman nearly drowned. He realized that he could have been one of those statistics. The brothers are determined to “sink the stats,” giving the gift of swimming to children who don’t have the resources to learn how.
Tankproof has taught over 2,300 children to swim, and is expanding to Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and Dallas. Support Tankproof with a donation, or learn how to volunteer as a swim instructor! >
Swimming isn’t just a sport. It’s a life-saving skill that every person deserves to learn. Thanks to Tankproof and countless other organizations around the world, the swimming community is making change happen. No matter where you live, you can help make swimming more diverse and inclusive. You have the power to change the narrative, and it starts by taking action!
I would like to thank you for what you are doing. If I may, my son Tyler Spann drown in a rip tide in 2018. Many black people go to the beach and have no ideal what the flags mean or the dangers. I would love to just speak to one of the founding brothers to express my gratitude.
Thank you for sharing, Angela! Tankproof is making an incredible difference in the lives of so many people!