Why Black people can’t swim


Recently I was on Google, searching for a reason to buy an iPad.  I had gotten into a petty argument with one of my friends about useless technology and, wanting some key facts to strengthen my side, I promptly inquired the omniscient Google for some back up.

My search entry was originally “why buy an iPad?”

But as I wrote “why b…” the search suggestions immediately came up with “Why black people can’t swim.”

Dear God.

I can barely swim myself.  I can’t float at all.  Only two people in my family can swim.  Little did I know that I was part of a saddening statistic that plagues nearly all of ethnically diverse communities- that in these communities, the youth drowning rate is two to three times higher than the national average.   I had heard much about this about a month earlier while watching a short segment on this crisis on ABC news.  I soon forgot about it, but the question still lingers in everyone’s mind.  Why can’t black people swim?  Here’s my take:

Quick Stats

  • Black children are three times as likely to drown than white children
  • More than 60% of African American Children can’t swim
  • While about 1/3 of white children from non-swimming families go on to learn to swim, less than 1/10 of children in non-swimming African American families do. (USA Swimming Foundation)
  • Two key barriers preventing children from learning to swim are fear of injury or drowning, and lack of parental encouragement

Upon reading all this, I thought about it for a while and constructed my opinion on why black people can’t swim.  These are based upon study, research, and the most crucial of all: personal experience.  The result was that all the major reasons fell underneath two main theoretical categories that both might be right.

The Social Theory


Over the course of social evolution (I hate that term), many people of diverse phenotypes evolved in different ways; some had life easier, given their climate, overall mindset, and were able to form simple to relatively complex governments.  Others were in harsher climates, had less time to evolve socially, and lived under constant fear of extinction.

Our brothers and sisters in Africa, for example, have lived in treacherous conditions, from dry spells upon the land, to wild jungle. It’s upon these ideas that I produced the concept that throughout history, black people have been less inclined to swim due to the state of their waters. Rivers in Africa have been (and still are) infected by crocodiles, alligators, hippos, and the like.  This, of course, sparked fear among people, much like it does today.

The sea isn’t much different either; the middle passage between Africa and South America is known to have a high population of sharks: another source of this basic, primal fear.

I believe that it’s this same fear that might very well explain the same type of paradoxical fear among island dwellers, particularly the predominantly black islands, such as the Caribbean. Many Haitians, Jamaicans, and other islanders are known to have a lack of swimming ability.

So why this illogical fear among the Caribbeans? After all, Haitians and Jamaicans live on islands for Christ’s sake.  Simply put: after seeing the death in the fatal, often tumultuous seas in their island, they are less likely to attempt to swim in it.  Once they are afraid, they are less likely to let their children attempt to swim in it either.  And so the sad cycle ensues.

So one might ask how this would explain the same crisis among African Americans.  I’ve been asked this question and my best response is that it has become an icon of African American social identity.


During the time of the Civil Rights Movement, blacks were not allowed to swim in public swimming pools.  Their children are less likely to learn from them (given the fact that they can’t swim), and the overall lack of skill goes on for generation after generation.  I’ve heard among my African American friends that because of this, the older generation has become less inclined to teach their children, for the same reason as the Caribbeans: fear.  That fear that if my children drown, I cannot save them.  And this fear has thrived along the generations, even to today.  So what happens?  There is a lack of encouragement.  The parents don’t have any notion of encouraging their children to learn how to swim.

In Google, there’s a myriad of articles about the age-old question of why black people can’t swim.  After surfing (pardon the pun) through the texts, I consulted YouTube, its sister site.  I came upon this:

This video utterly pissed me off, yet at the same time, it was so revealing. Because of the same primal fears as explained above, the lack of the ability to swim has become an accepted and integrated factor of black identity.  I have even heard that some black people believe that swimming is something “white people do.”  This ideology reminds me of the Oreo Issue. Good job guys, let’s see how good you do if you happen to be on a plane that crashes into the sea a few miles from shore, with limited amount of floating vehicles.

Still, I have talked to some girls who can’t swim, asking them what happens to be their inhibitions.  Why not hop into the pool and swim a lap or two?  Their answer: it ruins our hair; we got a image to hold.


The Scientific Theory

The human body is amazing.  Despite all of our cultural differences, us humans are roughly the same.  Studies show that intergenic DNA, (around 70% of our DNA) has no apparent function.  Genes are around 5%.  Around 99.8% of the DNA sequence in all humans is identical.  That leaves a small margin for major differences.

But certain studies claim that that small margin has a large affect.  Prior to writing this, my father showed me a study that he had stumbled across that clearly explained concept of the centre of gravity of the human body.  The centre of gravity, believe it or not, is found in the length of the torso.  Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering’s Professor Adrian Bejan has formulated a theory that may be of great aid to solving the conundrum.

Professor Bejan, along with Ph.D. candidate Edward Jones, Jordan Charles believe in a theory states that athletic success–and failure–lies in the center of gravity.  The longer the torso, the lower the center of gravity.  The lower the center of gravity, the larger wave one makes.  Read what Jones had to say:

There is a whole body of evidence showing that there are distinct differences in body types among blacks and whites.  These are real patterns being described here — whether the fastest sprinters are Jamaican, African or Canadian — most of them can be traced back generally to Western Africa.  Swimmers tend to come from Europe, and therefore tend to be white.

Jones and Bejan agreed that it is not necessarily linked directly to race, rather, it is linked to anatomy.  They said:

Blacks tend to have longer limbs with smaller circumferences, meaning that their centers of gravity are higher compared to whites of the same height.  Asians and whites tend to have longer torsos, so their centers of gravity are lower.

The centre of gravity is three percent higher in blacks than in whites.  As a matter of fact, many measurements show that a black men have a higher centre of gravity than white men of the same height.

According to Bejan,

“Locomotion is essentially a continual process of falling forward. Body mass falls forward, then rises again. Mass that falls from a higher altitude falls faster. In running, the altitude is set by the location of the center of gravity. For the fastest swimmers, longer torsos allow the body to fall forward farther, riding the larger and faster wave.”

Still, there have been numerous studies about the bone densities and buoyancy of either race.  According to the American Journal of Human Human Biology, an experiment was conducted studying the buoyancy of thirteen black males and thirteen white males.  They were matched for age, weight, and height.  In a swimming pool, they were tested for vertical and horizontal buoyancy.  Similarities were found in the breathing patterns of both races, eliminating the notion that the black swimmers were afraid of sinking, thus affecting the ability to float.

The main difference was this: the whites had significantly higher fat distribution; the more fat, the more buoyancy.

As for the bone densities, Edward Jones stated something that should ring a bell: black women have a lower incidence of osteoporosis than white women because of the increased density of their bones.  The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism stated that at certain skeletal areas, bone density is 4.5–16.1% higher for black than for white men and was 1.2–7.3% higher for black women than for white women.

Well, with that understood, someone might throw in the Cullen Jones twist. He’s a black Olympic swimmer! I mean, look at him!


Black people can't swim? HE can!


My answer to whoever says this is: are a large, significant number of black people competitive in golf?  Name one black person other than Tiger Woods that made it big in golf.  Tennis? Speed skating?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Read More At: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-05-01-swimming-minorities_N.htm

Want my sources? Click here

About Lòt Poto-a

I've taken advantage of this device to shed my view upon the universe from my spatio-temporal framework. View all posts by Lòt Poto-a

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