In America, racism is in the water

Lack of access to clean water has caused immense suffering and loss to Black communities well beyond drowning deaths.

Volunteers carry water bottles in Mississippi amid a water crisis.
Volunteers carry bottles of water at a water distribution site as the city of Jackson is to go without reliable drinking water indefinitely after the water treatment plant pumps failed, leading to the emergency distribution of bottled water and tanker trucks for 180,000 people, in Jackson, Mississippi, US, September 2, 2022 [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

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.”

And from the Jim Crow era to the present day, lack of access to clean water has caused immense suffering and loss to Black communities well beyond drowning deaths. The ongoing water crises in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi, two cities with majority Black populations, illustrate this clearly.

It is not simply a stroke of misfortune that the victims of these two most severe water crises in the US are overwhelmingly Black. Statistics from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show not only that communities of colour are more likely to have unsafe drinking water, but also that these communities are less likely to be granted federal funds to improve water safety.

The same appears to be true when it comes to flooding.

Black people in America have long been disproportionately impacted by flooding. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the flooding of New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – two of the worst natural disasters in American history – both devastated Black communities. Almost 20 years after Hurricane Katrina, flooding in the US continues to disproportionately impact Black neighbourhoods and this disparity is poised to grow wider as climate change hits communities of colour the hardest.

There are several important lessons that can be drawn from the long and sordid history of what I deem “water racism” in America.

First, the many instances in which water has inadvertently been transformed into a deadly weapon against Black people in America demonstrate that neglect can be as destructive and deadly as actual malice, especially when combined with systemic racism. Flint’s water crisis was caused by fraud and corruption – it was a direct consequence of criminal action. The situation in Jackson, which is currently being investigated by the EPA, however, seems to have been caused not by criminal actions of city officials but by their lack of care for the health and wellbeing of the Black residents they were supposed to serve.

Second, policymakers and institutions often refuse to learn from disasters that claim Black lives and devastate Black communities – however massive they may be. Indeed, the failure of levees and flood walls that exacerbated the impact of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 did not lead to preventative measures that could have saved New Orleans from suffering the same fate some 80 years later. In the same manner, the crisis in Flint did not create any urgency for the legislators in Mississippi to fix the growing water crisis in their back yard. 

All this shows that defeating water racism in America, as is the case with all other aspects of systemic racism in this country, would require wide-reaching, purposeful, political and institutional reform.

Gisele Fetterman made the supposedly “bizarre” comment about water being racist in America while discussing how her husband opened the governor’s mansion’s pool to the public while serving as Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor. While the gesture undoubtedly made a difference in the lives of local residents who got to use the facility, such individual-level actions can be nothing more than a drop in the bucket of American racism and its manifestations in our water.

Preventing more Flints or Katrinas or individual drownings will take large-scale measures to combat racialised income inequality, ensure equality in access to public infrastructure and combat environmental degradation disproportionately affecting communities of colour.

America actually has the necessary technological and economic means to swiftly clean from pollutants all its water sources, build effective levees to prevent floods in every at-risk city, and ensure all its children have access to safe swimming facilities. Unfortunately, however, ridding our waters and our nation of the pollution of racism will require a much longer and more purposeful clean-up effort. And it’s still not certain whether our nation is finally ready to embark on that desperately needed spring clean.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.