Shouts From The Stands: Swimming In A Post-Segregation America

by SwimSwam Contributors 6

January 18th, 2021 Lifestyle, News, Opinion

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Komal Hatti, a mother of two swimmers at the Empire KC swim club.

As any swim family can relate, swimming is the most wonderful sport in so many ways. At a basic level, it helps us stay safe in the water. School age competitive swimmers learn discipline and gain incredible self-confidence. For college level swimmers and beyond, it can be a source of income.

Water-sports and recreation is an integral part of American life-style. We dominate the Olympics in swimming. Since the first Olympics about 125 years ago, we have won a third of all medals and half of the gold medals in swimming. We love our summer vacations by the oceans, rivers and lakes.

However, like any activity, it comes with some risks. See figures below for drowning related fatalities in the US:

10 – Death/day from drowning

#1 – Leading cause of death ages 1-4

Top 3 – Cause of unintentional injury death ages 29 and below

As astonishing as these numbers may sound, a frightening picture emerges as we break the data by race.

Fatal drowning rate of African-American children is three times that of whites.

This disparity could not be due to inherent athletic ability, cultural interests or socio-economic status. We have to only look at the numbers from other sports. For the size of their population, African-Americans are present in sports at an overwhelming rate.

Why then is swimming as a sport an outlier for the African-Americans? They are great athletes, dominate our televisions and sports talks. Yet, they can’t swim to save their lives. Their kids are drowning three times as often.

Sadly, our dear friend US history is to blame here.

Lack of kids’ abilities have a strong correlation with the parents’ abilities.

  1. Only a tenth of the parents that can’t swim are likely to teach swimming to their children.
  2. 67% of African-Americans do not have basic swimming skills, compared to 49% of whites.
  3. As a result, 64% of African-American kids can’t swim, compared to 40% of white kids

Now let’s look at why African-American parents can’t swim.

We must remember, learning to swim begins with a pool.

  1. In the late 19th and early 20th century, we started building neighborhoods and pools. Let us remember we were a legally segregated country until 1965. So were our neighborhoods and pools.
  2. Our municipalities built a number of pools. Our communities and businesses built multiple neighborhoods with pools. Yet, very few of them were for African-American communities.
  3. Let us not forget that the law did not support African-Americans’ right to vote until 1965. The decision to exclude pools from their neighborhoods, and to exclude them from the public pools could not have been theirs.
  4. Fast forward to 2021, in an America with equal rights for all of 55 years, the astonishing swimming ability gap persists.

To a swim mom, an immigrant from small town India, these numbers are startling. I idolize America, and firmly believe we are the most just society in the world. That belief helped me leave family and friends and fly alone to the other side of the planet at a young age. America has delivered on its promise by providing boundless opportunities in all segments of life.

Yet, it breaks my heart to see such racial disparity in a sport that our family loves so dearly.

In this Brave New World, a barely-twenty-year-old immigrant can fully assimilate and have children with minimal or better swimming abilities in less than twenty years. In contrast, four hundred years after African-Americans first arrived in the US, roughly two-thirds of their children cannot swim to save their lives.

Every country has sinned, and they continue to do so at different levels. It is only human to make mistakes, small and big. What makes us great is that we are capable of realizing our mistakes and rising back up stronger, better and wiser. As an immigrant, I know the present America is far superior than these numbers suggest. I can say with full confidence, Americans as a whole are more capable, driven and just than any other citizens.

It is time for our great swim community to rise up to the occasion. Perhaps it’s a small monetary donation to an organization that gives free swim lessons to the African-American kids. Or it’s volunteering your time at such pools. Or something else.

Something, anything.


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1 month ago

What a brave and creative article by a progressive Mom who took the time to study the metrics which reflect sad truths in our society. I commend you Komal for such a wonderful piece of investigative journalism. Do you also have the data on the indigenous American Indian population? Sadly this small portion our our population seems to take a back seat to the more vocal and radical section of our progressive society. Our original, proud and stoic Americans need equal representation both in the press and through financial reparations. We should agree, as faithful and generous Americans to offer to our Indian populous complete dominion over a few of our states. For example – gift California, Oregon and Washington… Read more »

Komal Hatti
Reply to  SwimFani
1 month ago

Thank you. Yes, actually when I was doing research for this piece, the numbers for native Americans are really bad. The links in the references have some of that data if you want to look further.

1 month ago

A great reminder, thanks for writing this.

Komal Hatti
Reply to  Oldmanswimmer
1 month ago

Thanks. Grateful to SwimSwam for supporting.

1 month ago

Interesting! In the early 1990s we attended an age group meet in Kansas City Missouri in an African-American neighborhood. The high school building, which was recently built, was incredible with a beautiful indoor pool, running track, weight room, etc. Nicer than many colleges. Missouri had invested millions in facilities to overcome past racial inequities. Of course, swimming was not the primary focus of this expenditure, but this effort did result in far better swimming facilities than you will find in most middle class neighborhoods – certainly better than the facilities where my children were swimming.

It would be interesting to determine what the results were from a swimming perspective from this massive expenditure. Apparently, it did not generate expected… Read more »

Komal Hatti
Reply to  Ampersand
1 month ago

Hello and thank you for your thorough reply. Yes, we are in greater KC. Kansas City MO’s schools have been a mess. I could go on. We live in the suburbs but thru my involvement with KC Chamber, I am quite familiar with everything you are saying. Really the issue is poverty in that community as a result of segregation due to housing policies back then. Education and nurturing starts at home. That’s my take. Of course the school board’s politics is pretty bad as well. We are actually establishing a foundation thru KC Community foundation and our club wants to start a program to give free lessons to African-American community. With work commitment, it will be in Spring when… Read more »