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More Black Kids Drown. Are Parents At Fault?

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Kimberly Seals Allers:I have a swimming pool at my house -- a big ol' 18 x 38 in-ground pool that's eight feet deep on the far end and has a diving board to boot. And I don't know how to swim. Well, I won't drown (though I've never tested that theory), but I'm certainly no Olympic hopeful.

Pool and Kid

The pool was my ex-husband's domain. He is a fish. I'm a black woman with hair issues. And now that he's gone, I'm here alone with the big pool and his fish-like progeny. That means that every summer brings on the anxiety of supervising my kids in the pool. Don't get me wrong: I've taken every swim-safety course I can find and keep all sorts of rescue tools nearby. Most importantly, when spring hits I put both of my children in swim lessons long before swimming season starts, just to refresh their skills. When my budget allows, I also have a certified swim instructor come to the house.

Still, I'm haunted by the statistics. Black children are three times more likely to drown. Seventy percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have low or no swimming ability, compared to 40 percent of Caucasian children. That puts them at a greater risk of drowning, according to a new report by USA Swimming, which works to lower minority drowning rates and draw more blacks to the sport.

For years, the media have wanted to point to financial concerns or lack of pool access as the major reasons for the "swimming gap" between Caucasian kids and kids of other ethnicities. But a new study rips the lid off these ideas and shows that key cultural factorsare at the root of the gap: parental fear, lack of parental encouragement (attributed to the fact that many parents have no to low swim ability themselves) and concerns of physical appearance (i.e., chlorine's effect on ethnic hair and skin).

While financial factors do come into play for some families, the study found thatfear trumps finance in every group tested. Even if lessons were free, many parents would still not put their kids in the pool. As one mom in a Detroit focus group said, "You're already uncomfortable and scared. You're like, 'I'm paying them so I can have heart palpitations on the sidelines. It's not worth it. It really isn't. Why should I have to pay money to be afraid?"

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Olympic-swimming gold medalist and world-record holder Cullen Jones. Cullen nearly drowned as a child, but his mom used that experience to get him in the pool more, not less. Today, Cullen is a world-class swimmer and the second African-American to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport. Now he serves as a spokesperson for the "Make a Splash" initiative, which aims to help close the swimming gap and get more blacks and Latinos in the pool.

But the onus lies clearly with parents. I admit to my swimming fears, but I used those to put my children in the water more and to make sure they were not without swimming skills, instead of using my own fears as a reason to keep them away from swimming.

P.S. African-Americans' fear of water could be based on historical factors, too, such as segregated pools that sought to keep blacks out. Last year, 60 black and Latino campers were kicked out of a private Philadelphia swim club they'd contracted to use for the summer because there was concern they would alter the "complexion" and "atmosphere" of the club. Cullen Jones said he was "appalled" by the incident.

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18 comments so far | Post a comment now
Leah July 29, 2010, 6:23 AM

“60 black and Latino campers were kicked out of a private Philadelphia swim club they’d contracted to use for the summer because there was concern they would alter the “complexion” and “atmosphere” of the club”

Where I grew up, outside of Philly, I was beat up everyday for trying to use the “public” pool because I was white. Depends where you are I guess, but all the “public” pools were for the black kids only since you got beat up if you tried to use it. So I grew up without access to pools and am very afraid of the water. So historical factors can really affect any race.

Sue Nelson July 29, 2010, 7:20 AM

Thank you for sharing your story. For a person who has a pool in the backyard you are doing all the right things.

I work at USA Swimming as the Aquatic Program Specialist and very fortunate to be able to be part of the Make a Splash Initiative. Our efforts and objectives are many but the one message we like to spread across the country is that every child should learn how to swim no later than the 3rd grade.

I would also encourage you to visit the National Drowning Prevention Alliance website to see how they are working with multiple organizations to make a difference in water safety awareness.

Again thanks for your article and I hope many parents will get the message about what it takes to keep their child safer in and around bodies of water.

If you would like to know more about the Make a Splash Initiative please contact me through the email.

Sue Nelson
USA Swimming
Aquatic Program Specialist

BelovedMother July 29, 2010, 7:21 PM

Parental supervision is key. We REALLY need an initiative where parents can either watch their kids, or go to jail.

Carol July 29, 2010, 10:54 PM

I have lived in several major US cities, most had neighborhood/communities pools open or minimal fee to use.
Swim lessons were either free or minimal fee.
So I agree that finances isn’t the route cause.
In one city I lived in a black child almost drown and the mother sued. There was around a hundred people (or more depending on news sources), there was a heat wave. Apparently, the mother didn’t think the two life guards responded quickly enough.
Neither the mother or child could swim. Which begs the question wh allow or take your child to a pool or lake or ocean if they AND you the parent ca’t swim?
If watching your child take swimming lesson makes you anxious, then how doesn’t watching or letting your child into the water make you anxiety?
I just don’t get that?

Anonymous July 30, 2010, 2:43 PM

Parents are to blame if they put their children in a situation that they or their children aren’t prepared to handle. If you or your children don’t know how to swim, then stay out of pools, oceans, lakes etc… If your child needs to cool down on hot day, setup a sprinkler or just stay indoors.

Erica Davis August 3, 2010, 3:14 PM

I am a 20 year old in South Carolina. I don’t fit the stereotype. I can swim quite well, as a matter of fact i was certified as a lifeguard. My entire immediate family knows how to swim, it is not that difficult, i don’t understand why so many black people cannot swim.

Read more:

LHAO August 3, 2010, 3:15 PM

Are we seriously to believe that due to segregation ALL those years ago, black people are still afraid of the water today? Really? Does this mean black people are unable to grow personally and that they are essentialy evolutionary stunted? Has there been a study done on the blacks still living in Africa and the occurance of drownings, their abilities to swim, or their fears if the water? ALL people, no matter your ethnic background or color, need to stop blaming every little personal downfall on the past.

PISSED OFF AMERICAN August 4, 2010, 3:36 PM

P.S. African-Americans’ fear of water could be based on historical factors, too, such as segregated pools that sought to keep blacks out. Last year, 60 black and Latino campers were kicked out of a private Philadelphia swim club they’d contracted to use for the summer because there was concern they would alter the “complexion” and “atmosphere” of the club. Cullen Jones said he was “appalled” by the incident.”


DoSomethingAboutIt August 15, 2010, 2:18 PM

@Erica Davis…if you don’t “understand why so many black people can’t swim” re-read the article. It’s in there.

@LHAO, re-read the article. It says that’s one of the factors not the only factor. My goodness. So you’re saying that people from history don’t pass along their beliefs & teachings generation to generation? No black person is actually blaming anyone. It’s just a fear we have, even if it is irrational. We fear swimming for many reasons. I repeat, reread the article. No one is blaming white people or any other group. Obviously it’s on us to teach our children. Duh.

@Pissed Off American. Wow. Why so angry? Is there something you’re going to do about the rate at which black children are drowning? If not, what are you complaining about? You’re not offering solutions, you’re whining about an incident in which racism was at play AGAINST black people and are upset that a black person had the audacity to be “appalled” by it. Come on. Obviously Cullen overcame his fear and became a better swimmer….the way his mother pushed him is the way we should all push our children. That’s a solution. Whining isn’t.

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