raceAhead: Racist History of U.S. Swimming

August 12, 2016, 2:05 PM UTC

Two black women named Simone have captured our hearts during the Summer Olympics in Rio.

It’s been thrilling to watch gold medalist Simone Biles emerge as the most talented gymnast in the history of the sport.

But yesterday belonged to another Simone. Twenty-year old swimmer Simone Manuel tied for the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, sharing a new world record with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak. But she broke another record all on her own – Manuel is the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics.

“It means a lot [to be the first black woman to earn gold in the pool],” she said. “I mean, this medal is not just for me. It’s for a whole bunch of people that came before me and have been an inspiration to me.”

But there’s another reason why her record really matters: She’s a serious outlier. Research conducted by Swimming USA, along with the University of Memphis, show that 70% of African Americans cannot swim. (The same study found that 58% of Hispanic children have low or no swimming ability.)

The issue is more deadly than disappointing. Up to 4,000 kids die by drowning every year. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at every age, black kids are drowning more than white kids, and most often in swimming pools. For kids ages 5-19, black kids drown at rate 5.5 times that of white kids. If you’re 11 or 12, the rate jumps to ten times. Native Americans/Alaska Natives drown at twice the rate of whites.

When this issue is discussed, some bizarrely racist theories tend to emerge, usually something to do with bone density or the lack of buoyancy of black people. (Commence shaking your head.) But the truth is simpler and also completely racist: Public pools in America were initially segregated, usually barring swimmers of color outright. And once segregation was banned, white people fled to private pools, leaving municipal facilities to languish.

There were two key moments in history when swimming became popular: The 1920s and ’30s, when swimming took off as a recreational activity, and the 1950s and ’60s, when the idea of swimming as a sport became popular. Professor Jeff Wiltse’s book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America is the definitive beach read on the subject, but the bottom line is that because of segregation and white flight, recreational swimming never became part of the black experience in America. Generations of black folks never learned to swim.

In 2010, six black teenagers drowned in a single horrifying incident in Louisiana, calling attention to the issue, and sparking a campaign to bridge the gap.

Let’s hope this wonderful news does the same thing.


Have a safe and restful weekend! Special shout-out to raceAhead superfan Ian Abbott for keeping me buoyant this week.


On Point

Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris is the business coach you didn’t know you neededCarla Harris, chair of the National Business Council and Vice Chair of Wealth Management for Morgan Stanley, is a force of nature and one of the most successful black women working in corporate America today. Her candid interview on Fortune Live is a must watch. “Don’t feel intimidated if you’re the only person of color in the room,” she says. “You’ve got an advantage. Make no mistake, all eyes will be on you.”Fortune

President Obama drops his summer playlist and it matters
The only thing cooler than Obama’s playlist is culture writer Rebecca Carroll’s masterful review, which weaves in history, music and politics into a profound look at racial identity in America. “There’s no black cultural marker more abiding than our music, and if Obama’s playlist indicates nothing else, it’s that reaffirmation of one’s blackness can always be found right there in the bars.”
The Guardian

Inside the radical perfection of Simone Biles
The New York Times has created a fun and fascinating interactive feature that breaks down Biles’s signature move and almost makes you believe that you too could pull off a double layout with a half-twist and blind landing. Almost. Actually, no.
New York Times

Snapchat releases a racist, yellowface filter
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Reddit is still a mess
Speaking of tech, a steady and dramatic stream of staff departures, mostly women and/or people of color, paint a grim picture for the turnaround of Reddit. According to TechCrunch, the company is struggling to fix a toxic work culture that seems to include a complete lack of leadership, sexual harassment, and excessive drinking.

The Woke Leader

Why Somalis feel so at home online
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Gay and lesbian students report high levels of violence in school
The federal government’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey is the gold standard of adolescent health data collection. This year marks the first time the survey ever asked about sexuality (though not gender identity.) The results confirmed what smaller studies have suggested: Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens are at significantly greater risk for depression, bullying and violence than their straight peers. The New York Times offers a sobering analysis.
New York Times

John Lewis advises and praises young activists of color
Congressman John Lewis started out as a teenaged civil rights activist and hasn’t stopped in decades. In this conversation with Yara Shahidi, the young star of the hit ABC show Blackish, he shares memories of the movement and offers advice – and praise – to the many young activists of color who are getting into “necessary trouble” working on civil rights issues today.
Huffington Post


Sometimes you have to get in the way. You have to make some noise by speaking up and speaking out against injustice & inaction. #goodtrouble
—John Lewis

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