In a recent interview, Gisele Fetterman, activist wife of Democratic Pennsylvania Senator-elect John Fetterman, turned heads by stating that “historically, swimming in America is very racist”.
“When you look at drowning statistics,” she explained, “it usually affects children of colour because of lack of access.”
Conservative outlets were quick to brand Fetterman’s comments as “bizarre“, but she was right: Black children are three times as likely to drown as white children in the United States, and that ratio goes up to more than five times as likely for swimming pool deaths in particular.
And all this is because access to pools, uncontaminated reservoirs and other swimming venues – just like water fountains and public taps – has long been restricted by race in this country. Racism is, quite literally, in the water in America.
Black communities did not always have a negative relationship with water in general and swimming in particular.
Many communities along the West Coast of Africa have long been known for their excellent swimmers and expert fishermen. For some of them, surfing has been a common pastime for hundreds of years. It was only in the context of enslavement that waterways were transformed from sources of life, livelihood and recreation to sites of danger and death for Black people.
During US slavery, waterways presented a double-edged sword as a source of both freedom and risk. Underground Railroad conductors like Harriet Tubman would lead those escaping slavery across rivers and creeks, which both helped throw the dogs tracking them off their scents and served as natural landmarks on the path to freedom. Two great rivers – the Ohio River and the Rio Grande – served as physical boundaries between North and South, and thus between freedom and slavery. Getting across these rivers meant navigating the dangers of fugitive patrols, hostile terrain, and drowning.
But it was after the end of slavery and the cessation of the brief period of Reconstruction that American racial oppression fully honed in on water access.
During Jim Crow and segregation, access to clean, safe water became heavily policed. Swimming pools and drinking fountains became very public displays of racial oppression. Black people, including children, faced violent reprisals for even attempting to access whites-only pools or fountains.
This racist denial of access is what Fetterman referenced in her comments: the legacy of generations of Black people left vulnerable to drowning because of unequal access to swimming facilities. It was these practices of segregation – not Fetterman’s acknowledgement of history – that were truly “bizarre.”