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Why Do Black Kids Drown More Often Than Whites?

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Kate Tuttle: Among parental fears, losing a child to a thoughtless, preventable accident has got to be at the top of the list. Every year, hundreds of children under 14 die of drowning -- and several hundred more survive but are left permanently disabled. Although there are always a few cases in which children drown in deep water or treacherous riptides, the majority of these drownings occur in swimming pools.

Kid swimming

The summer swimming season is upon us, with pools open in most towns and children being shepherded to swim outings on a daily basis. Now, a new study (reported last week in the Wall Street Journal) has exposed some sad connections between race, income and drowning. Black children between the ages of 5 and 14, the study says, drowned at a rate three times that of white children in the years studied.

Although all children are at risk of drowning when they lack adequate supervision or are unskilled at swimming, kids of color and poor kids in general are several times more likely to find themselves in dangerous situations. The WSJ article details several reasons for this, citing budget cuts that 1) remove lifeguards from public pools, 2) abolish the opportunity to take swim lessons and/or 3) keep pools out of poor neighborhoods altogether, thereby ensuring that children in those areas never learn to swim -- and putting them in grave danger when their youth group has a beach or lake day.

Sad as that is, it's at least somewhat intuitive (less access to pools means less swimming expertise means more danger. Got it). But the study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Memphis, also pointed to less obvious sources of the drowning gap. It turns out that generations of not swimming (caused, in the case of black children, by decades of Jim Crow-style segregation and discrimination in public pools) has left many black parents -- and indeed, poor parents of all races -- wary of allowing their children to go swimming or take lessons. The tragic irony, of course, is that swimming lessons offer protection against drowning -- they don't cause it.

Highlighting the role of racial prejudice in keeping black kids from the pool is the study's most painful contribution -- yet, I'd argue, it's its most useful. For while a lot of folks probably think that segregation went out of style in the '50s and '60s, many public swimming pools had unwritten rules keeping black kids out well into the '70s and beyond (even as recently as last year, a country club that had offered its pool facilities to a local youth group rescinded that offer after it turned out that the kids were black). It's this kind of story -- and the demonstrable, lingering aftereffects quantified by the University of Memphis study -- that draw a clear connection between racial discrimination and harm to innocent children. And that's a fact that ought to give us all pause as we pack our beach bags.

For more on drowning dangers and how to help protect your loved ones, read the CDC fact sheet on water-related injuries.

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36 comments so far | Post a comment now
Leah June 14, 2010, 6:13 AM

Black kids drown the same reason white kids do - because their parents don’t teach them how to swim or arent’ watching them period. Just like any kids who drowns

Please don’t start the race thing limitng acces thing.
We were the ONLY white family in my neighborhood growing up in the 80s/90s and there was a beautiful public pool that we weren’t allowed to swim in because we were white. the black kids would throw rocks at us or beat us up if we tried to enter the public pool area or the park next to it.

michelle June 14, 2010, 9:03 AM

Leah, your one experience has nothing to do with the statistical evidence that black children are more at risk of drowning. Just because YOU don’t want to “start the race thing” doesn’t mean it’s not something people need to discuss.

Gigohead  June 14, 2010, 9:03 AM

I agree with the article. Blank children are not given better access to lessons at the local YMCA. In the Bronx, the local YMCA charges A LOT of money for lessons, thus causing parents in the nearby projects to forgo lessons.

Sonja June 14, 2010, 12:17 PM

In my area YMCA is low-cost free for minorities so there goes that reasoning about race limiting opportunity.

I agree with the first poster -kids drown because they either aren’t taught to swim or parents aren’t watching.

Shannon June 14, 2010, 12:29 PM


Christina June 14, 2010, 3:30 PM

Those of you who think it isn’t about race don’t know much about history. You also don’t know much about hair. I have a friend in her 40s from a VERY well-off AA family who did not learn to swim until she went to college. Why? Because her mother did not want her going into the pool. Why? Because it would ruin whatever ‘do her mother had put her hair into that week. As a curly myself, I can attest that straightened hair does NOT stay straight when it hits the water. In the case of AA hair, that can translate into a lot of time and/or money gone in an instant.

Marthe June 14, 2010, 7:04 PM

To Leah, Sonja and Shannon… It is about both. It’s about race and economics. If $77 for ONE child is cheap for you then you are very blessed. To many people out there that have less than $100 left in their accounts after SOME of their utilities (not luxuries) are paid and they still have to put gas in their vehicles to get to their jobs plus buy food, the lessons are definitely expensive. Yes there is a discount for low income families at the Y but that does not include swimming lessons. IF in your area it does, the discount is still not enough once you have to add the “low” cost membership, the swimming lessons plus whatever other incidentals are needed for the lessons. Also it has not been taken into account that most of these parents have to work all day to be able to just survive so they’re not home to take the child/children to any facility for those lessons anyhow.
Yes, negligence on the parents part to properly supervise the child/children is a huge factor. Water of more than one inch is dangerous to children but it would still be extremely helpful in saving lives if lessons were made available for all children either free or heavily discounted.

Victor June 14, 2010, 7:21 PM

DON’T HAVE KIDS IF YOU DON”T THE MONEY!!! DON’T BRING A PERSON INTO THIS WORLD TO SUFFER. Protecting your child can be not having one. Help take care of other children if you don’t have the money. Heck Volunteer to teach kids to swim if you are not financially stable to do it. Having kids is not simple and it should be regulated instead of supporting abortion support extensive parenting classes before having children. You don’t have to worry about the future of man kinds if its beyond your means. Just enjoy life till its over.

Victor June 14, 2010, 7:23 PM

Don’t have kids if you don’t have the money period. Go after the career and money first then get pregnant. This is not wild times anymore. now this is logic

Christina June 14, 2010, 7:58 PM

Victor, do you know of a 100% fail-proof birth control method that is affordable for those who “can’t afford” kids? Don’t you dare say abstinence. Let’s assume we’re discussing married couples here (lest we offend your delicate sensibilities). And why, praytell, should only rich people get to have kids? You are equating material goods with good parenting. A kid may not have swimming lessons but still have good parents. And how does your comment address Catholicism and its attitude toward birth control? There are a lot of Catholics in this world, so this is not an insignificant issue. You make a LOT of assumptions, but don’t provide any solutions to supposed problems.

friend June 14, 2010, 8:17 PM

personally, i don’t think any of the reasons mentioned above are definitive. the article is somewhat generalized, maybe a little overly so but the points, none the less, need to be looked into. racial differences may be one of them to a particular region but not true for all. the same goes for discrepancies in social economic status. Back when there were no public pools, what were the reasons that stopped people from learning to swim? We do expect those who live near the waters to know how to swim, but that may not be entirely true. babies can learn how to swim in a bathtub! heck, baby was in a pool of water before birth for months. so to target one or just a few among numerous possible conditions and reasons to be the source of the problem is being shortsighted and arrogant.

Really? June 15, 2010, 10:50 AM

Victor, Sonja, Leah & friend - the only voices of reason on here!! Either you learn to swim or you don’t - race doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Jack June 18, 2010, 8:04 AM

thats cuz pools be raysis n’ sheet, nomsayin. theyz be scriminatin on da brotha’s an sistah’s n’ sheet, nomsayin?

Leo June 18, 2010, 12:28 PM

We all know that Black people can’t swim!
Dance, yes, Run, you bet!. Swim?
There are sientific reasons—but its racist to say so—the work has been supressed.

Sirajah June 18, 2010, 10:24 PM

This site is a little ridiculous when it comes to race. People, if you don’t like talking about race it would make sense to not read the article. You just want something to be pissed off about.

This article gives several perfectly logical explanations for this differences in the data. Some of them are related to race, some are related to culture, and some are related to income. It’s a reasonable question to ask and momlogic gave reasonable answers.

It’s ridiculous that some of you people, as adults, can’t talk about race without becoming infuriated. It’s sad that some of you can’t talk about race without being hateful and stupid. If you don’t like talking about race then don’t read the articles. If you have trouble understanding the articles, because you don’t ever talk about race, that’s okay. Try to hold a civil discussion and ask questions instead of this flare of hostility. No one is blaming you. Maybe you’re blaming yourself?

pharmacy tech June 19, 2010, 2:59 AM

What a great resource!

emily July 9, 2010, 11:52 AM

There are rich white people, and poor white people, rich black people and poor black people. I think I get what the article is saying though. If the majority of African Americans were never taught to swim generations back, it can reflect in todays society. It is very common for things such as swimming, If your grandparents had no idea how to swim and they raised your parents to stay away from the water, made it a scary thing, something you would get in trouble for being near, than you in return have the same fears instilled in you. Its really about fear, and it just so happens that statistically it is more frequent among blacks. And I can see the reasoning of segregation and all that factored into that. I can remember my own grandmother screaming at my sister and I when we went to play down by the lake. She would be furious and we never understood why she would be so mad at us for being near the water. I now understand that since she had no idea how to swim, us playing near the water was frightening to her. If we slipped, or fell, she could’nt have saved us. We both are very good swimmers, but what if we slipped, hit our head on a rock, that was her reasoning. So to me it makes perfect sense. that is all.

Dave Cutler August 5, 2010, 8:19 PM

I must comment on Leo’s remark that there is scientific evidence that black people can’t swim. That’s ridiculous. In 2009 I attended the National Drowning Prevention Association’s Symposium on Drowning Prevention. A speaker there was the director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida. His lecture was about the surprisingly remarkable history of swimming in the U.S. Historical records indicate the complete opposite: Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves were remarkably good swimmers. Fearful that their slaves would use the rivers and streams to escape (as they were doing) the slave owners forbade any swimming. This was continued for generations and generations, and became part of the American black culture. This was further propagated by racism, which prevented or limited black people from swimming. Historically, here’s another example of how racism prevented blacks and other ethnicities from learning how to swim. In the early days of pools there was no chlorine or filtration system. The water just sat in a concrete hole. The pool was filled with fresh water on Monday, and whites (only) swam until Saturday. Blacks were then allowed to swim in the 6-day old water. Then Hispanics and other minorities were allowed to swim on Sunday (since “God-fearing people would be on church). The pool water was finally emptied, and the cycle began again…. In truth, swimming is a physical, athletic ability. Anyone with a decent physical, athletic ability can learn to swim. It has nothing to do with ethnicity or sex or even age (mostly). But it has a lot to do with cultural beliefs, which must be dispelled if we are to reduce drowning in this country. Dave Cutler, Co-Founder, Aquatic Safety Concepts LLC.

Dave Cutler August 5, 2010, 8:34 PM

My apologies, it is the “National Drowning Prevention Alliance” and not “Association”. The incredible speaker that day was Mr. Bruce Wigo.

TPS August 9, 2010, 8:10 AM

This article is completely rediculous and racist! I know many black people who are very good swimmers.

I understand the concept about financial reasons limiting peoples’ abilities to swim in a city, but that is not limited to a race issue in these modern times. Anyone can get a good job and make good money if they put forth the effort and work for it.

I am a white, 25-year old male who lives in Louisiana and was never given anything. I grew up in a dump. When I turned 18, I joined the Army (which, last time I checked, accepted all races and nationalities) After two tours overseas, I now own a house and have a good job because of the experience I gained. I do not have a college education.

And for the record, NOTHING is free. There are no such things as “free” swimming lessons - only swimming lessons that are being paid by tax payers and hard workers such as myself.

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