• Gareth Hedges

Covid and Racism in Aquatics

As I have mentioned in our previous webinars hosted by Redwoods (, we are only at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—this week, we are still seeing about 20,000 new cases, and about 1,000 deaths per day nationally—and we are still learning what the immediate and long-term medical, economic, political, and societal affects may be. Yet, we almost seem to forget about the pandemic this week, because the news sites and social media feeds are overrun with images of riots, protest, and civil unrest.

The coronavirus did not cause these protests—widespread systemic racism has been an insidious part of American life through its entire history, from its roots in slavery, enacted into law through Jim Crow, and baked into every part of our formal and informal societal structures, including access to housing, education, and financial institutions. But the coronavirus has further exposed our racial injustice and emboldened those that benefit from maintaining the unjust status quo. The crisis has enhanced a set of circumstances including unemployment, fear, social media influence, economic disparity, and mistrust of the government and media, such that the desperation can no longer be ignored in our communities.

So we can’t ignore it in the aquatics community either. Because we are part of the problem—swimming in America has long been tied to race, and is still defined by the systemic racism in our country. The drowning rate for black children over five years old is over 5 times as high as the drowning rate for white children. Black children are far less likely to learn how to swim, or even have access to swimming pools. Our lifeguards, aquatic directors, swim team coaches, and athletes are predominantly white. And from explicit “White Only” signs at the pool in the 1950s and 60s, to segregation in private and community pools, and to the videotaped poolside confrontations that have made media attention in the last few years, our industry has protected the “whiteness” of swimming while lamenting the lack of diversity and inclusion in aquatics.

And, as in the larger society, our response in the aquatics community to the coronavirus and our reopening of pools will only highlight the racism and social issues in our industry. We will be operating our pools this summer with limited capacity, and many will not be allowing guests or new members, further limiting access to pools to African Americans. Our swim lessons will be limited to small numbers, and may require parents to be present—which will mean that only the most affluent, usually white children with parents who don’t work during the day will continue to get lessons, while African American children will not. When it is hot, people will want to swim, and all of our options will be limited, which will lead to more African Americans swimming in unguarded, dangerous, and overcrowded natural areas and pools, as opposed to the guarded pools. And there will be more confrontations as staff at these pools clumsily enforce access restrictions.

This isn’t something we’re going to solve overnight—and we won’t solve it this summer. But,

again, this is only the beginning. We have talked about the need to create a new normal, and in addition to staffing solutions and policies, racial equity must be top of the list of things we’re paying attention to and are committed to creating new actions around. There is no easy solution here. And the answer is not to simply promote inclusion, or to merely acknowledge your privilege if you are white. The opposite of racism is anti-racism. That means making decisions that are designed to reverse the impact of systemic racism. That means giving up privilege—for you and for those of us that have benefited from it our entire lives.

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