Report: 70 percent African-American kids can’t swim; often fear passed down by parents

The New York Times has some stunning statistics about how many African-American kids cannot swim but the even more shocking part is why.

From The New York Times:

“According to the USA Swimming Foundation, about 70 percent of African-American children, 60 percent of Latino children and 40 percent of white children are nonswimmers. Lack of access and financial constraints account only partly for these numbers. Fear, cultural factors and even cosmetic issues play a role as well.”

“Before the Civil War, more blacks than whites could swim,” Lynn Sherr, the author of “Swim: Why We Love the Water,” said in an interview. “There are many stories of shipwrecks in which black slaves rescued their owners.”

But as Ms. Sherr learned from Bruce Wigo of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, segregation destroyed the aquatic culture of the black community. “Once whites discovered swimming, blacks were increasingly excluded from public pools and lifeguarded beaches,” Mr. Wigo told her.

“As a result, many minority parents never learned how to swim. Adults who can’t swim often fear the water and, directly or indirectly, convey that fear to their children.”

I am just completely fascinated that the results of segregated pools are still affecting African-American families today. It makes perfect sense that if the grandparents and parents grew up unable to use their local pools that their kids wouldn’t learn how.

How can minority families be encouraged to swim and to get potentially life-saving swimming lessons for their kids? How can we break that cycle of fear of water for many African-American families?

68 comments Add your comment

Devil's Advocate

June 12th, 2013
1:58 pm

I hear you FCM but how many schools have access to a pool to teach swimming as part of Health? Who is going to pay for transportation, insurance, and rental fees of a pool? Tax payers.

How many daycare facilities have a pool or swimming program that does not cost extra on top of tuition?

How many churches have camps that teach swimming? How many people attend church? Is swimming now a religious issue?

How many YMCA facilities are there nationwide? Not enough to provide swimming to every citizen. Who is going to pay to expand the YMCA footprint to accommodate affordable access for all citizens? Same for Boys and Girls Club…

Once again, everyone does not attend these purely optional facilities you mention and the one that is designed to handle citizens (school) cannot afford the cost of teaching all students how to swim.


June 12th, 2013
2:06 pm

The 70% statistic must have been taken from a poll in the 1960s. I have a little trouble believing that 70% of blacks today cannot swim. The figure today may be a closer to 40%.


June 12th, 2013
2:15 pm

DA and this topic got me curious… I did a real quick Google Search for underprivledged swimming lessons in the US. I found that “Make A Splash” has 41 grants in 19 states, Penn State has a free program, Jacksonville, FL (Swimming Safari Swim School) also has free program. The Gift of Swimming offers full scholarships to underprivileged children to learn to swim. There is a facebook page Survival Swim Lessons for Underprivileged Children.that will allow you to link/partner with instructors.

Perhaps it is more about educating the parents about how to find help?

DA I am with you…I don’t want more tax payer money into much of anything. In fact I wish that most of the programs were gone and private assistance was the method to get help.


June 12th, 2013
2:17 pm

@sra – excellent points.


June 12th, 2013
2:21 pm

Growing up, my Mom would always tell us that we couldn’t go in the water until we learned to swim..Duh, if you aren’t in the water, how are you gonna learn..Out of 10 kids, only three of us learned to swim..I can swim, but not a big fan of beaches or lakes, I would much rather be in the mountains..

Not sure who mentioned schools teaching kids to swim, but I have 2 grown nephews and they learned to swim in elementary school in Missouri. Most all of my nieces and nephews learned to swim in part because their parents never did..


June 12th, 2013
3:21 pm

@Beth, it’s truly scary that you are someone’s parent. Wow!

Curious George

June 12th, 2013
9:06 pm

Is this all Bush’s fault, too?

Curious George

June 12th, 2013
9:08 pm

Could “fear of swimming” be replaced this piece or its title with any (or all) of the following?

* Fear of Using a Turn Signal

* Fear of Balancing a Checkbook

* Fear of Tipping a Hardworking Restaurant Server

* Fear of Accountability for One’s One Actions

* Fear of EVER Registering to Vote (for ANY Reason) Prior to 2008



June 13th, 2013
7:37 am

I never learned to swim. Not sure that my parents could either. I took lessons as an adult but never got over the fear. I backstroke on a good-day but that’s it. Face in the water – not so much. That being said, my girls both swim and now swim competitively. They were exposed to water safety at daycare and later during swim lessons. I wanted them both to have that skill. Now that we live in the land of 10,000 lakes water safety/skill is all the more important. Surprisingly, many folks are not strong swimmers in our area. They doggie paddle at best, head out of the water, using lots of energy. I will say that our school district partners with the local YMCA to provide a unit on water safety for 3rd graders. My kids never attended as they were both past that grade when we moved here. I am grateful for the lessons my kids received in Gwinnett. Worth the money.


June 13th, 2013
8:39 am

@HB – Sounds like we may have grown up in the same small town. The city did have a pool at the city park off and on for awhile. The park pool was open in the 60’s and maybe early 70′’s, then I think it was closed for awhile and reopened again.


June 13th, 2013
8:53 am

I understand that access and money are important, but I really don’t think that is stopping most people. We don’t have a pool in our subdivision, so we use our city park pool in our North Fulton city. While you see people from a variety of racial backgrounds there, the mix doesn’t really reflect the overall city population. The cost, though, is quite low. It is much less than the cost of a movie or other places where you will see many African Americans going.

You can swim for $3 if you are a resident of the city (2 and under free). A youth can get a Pass for 10 swims for $26. An entire family can have a Family Pass for the entire summer (3 and a half months) for $130. Swimming classes are only $54 for 8 sessions. That’s less than $7 per class. LIke someone else said, this is less than what some families spend on a cell phone plan for one month.

I think for many families, who don’t prioritize swimming or other activities, such as hiking, it’s just more of an ingrained culture that is passed down. For example, take “hiking”, my son loves hiking because his parents love hiking. We exposed him early and frequently to that activity, which is totally free and available locally in pretty much every town. There are some families, though, who have never gone on any type of nature hike and it’s not money that’s stopping them. It just wasn’t something they were exposed to as a child and, unless, they “step out” of that and initiated something new, it just won’t happen. It takes some effort on the parents part to make sure their kids learn the skills they need. They have to step out and break the cycle. And, some parents, are just too slack or too afraid of water to do that.


June 13th, 2013
8:58 am

@sra – #1) Get over yourself… the crime in that area of town is bad. I never said that I didn’t go to the starlight drive in because I’m afraid of black people or any minorities. I don’t go because of the high crime in that area of town. I can’t help if the crime is being committed by mostly blacks and minorities. That’s obviously your issue and you are defensive about it. There was a murder at the drive in about a year ago. I’m sorry for your kids if you enjoy taking them to places that is surrounded by crime and murder happens at the drive in itself. I choose not to surround my kids with that kind of enviornment. I feel bad for your kids that you do.

#2) My “bubble” has plenty of colors in it (including families from China, India, and Ghana)…. they are just the non violent, non theiving kind.

One of our “field trips” for my 5 and 8 year old this summer was to take Marta down to the airport. And yes, they were shocked to see how dirty the streets were, the boarded up windows, store fronts with bars on the windows, and not to mention all the gang grafitti. So to anwer you question, YES I am absolutely choosing to raise my kids in an area where we (and the local merchants) don’t worry about being robbed at gunpoint. My kids spend HOURS playing in the cul de sac of our subdivision with their friends… worry free. Yes, I choose this life for my kids. So now I have to go because we are off to swim practice where our team is undefeated in our “bubble” of a life and we love it!

And by the way, if you are saying that fathers not staying in the home is not a major problem for American Black families…. then you need to do your homework. That is ignorance!


June 13th, 2013
9:01 am

Could be, Ann. I grew up in the 80s but remember people saying there had been a pool in the park in the middle of town at some point (I think part of it was visible, but my memory is fuzzy on that). It never has reopened.


June 13th, 2013
9:19 am

@HB – If it’s the same town, the park pool, when it was open, was near the hospital that was right by the city park.


June 13th, 2013
9:29 am

Posters who comment that “they don’t care that others choose not to swim” or “they don’t care what other people do or not do”, here’s my concern – I care about children in general, and what they are learning or doing, because these kids are the “pool” of future potential friends and mates of my child. For example, my son, who is 8, watches very little television and doesn’t play video games or use a cell phone. As a family, we don’t particularly “value” those things, but, he simply just isn’t interested in video games. He prefers to play outside, bike, play in the creek, build forts, read, play music and dance. Sometimes I wonder – “Will he will find people to date or marry who do not have their head buried in a cell phone?” So, while we do our “own thing”, I do still care about the general lives of all children in the community, whether it’s swimming, obesity, crime, etc.


June 13th, 2013
10:13 am

I think it’s a different town, then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many small towns down there had similar set ups and town pools that were defunded as public spaces were integrated.

Dr. Collins

June 13th, 2013
11:23 am

Why don’t they offer more classes in Black neighborhoods. I just wrote our County Commissioner Edwards. I stood in line with about 150 people to sign up for 45 slots for swimming classes that are only held during the summer (SUMMER ONLY)!! Other areas in the county have year round swimming classes (not swimming programs). The North County has several classes open and they are year round


June 13th, 2013
12:10 pm

@RJ – I am a highly educated, well read, and well informed parent. I volunteer at my kid’s schools on a weekly basis and have been room mom several times over. We are a close knit, open minded, and charitable family. My husband (and high school sweetheart), who does not have a college degree works his butt off to provide for us. And my kids are being well educated, taught to respect themselves and others, and the value hard work. So I can totally see where it might be scary to have me as a parent. (dripping sarcasm).

On the other hand, your unnecessary condescending judgement of me speaks volumes about you and who you truly are as a person. Truly Scary. Wondering if the hipocracy makes it hard for you to look in the mirror everyday?