08.07.10

The Drowning Race Gap

Last week’s tragedy in Louisiana highlighted a shocking statistic: 70 percent of black youth can’t swim. Constantino Diaz-Duran on why efforts to get minorities into the water often fail.

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare: Watching as your child dies just a few feet away while you stand by, helpless.

Maude Warner lived that agony this week when what was supposed to be a fun family outing devolved into tragedy. She, her kids, and some friends were picnicking on the bank of the Red River near their home in Shreveport, Louisiana. One of her sons, 15-year-old DeKendrix Warner, who could not swim, was playing in the shallows when he accidentally stepped off a submerged ledge into the deep. DeKendrix survived, but not before six of his siblings and friends drowned while trying to save him. Maude Warner lost three of her children that day: a 13-year-old daughter, and 14- and 17-year-old sons. Three of their friends also perished, brothers who were 18, 17, and 15 years old.

None of them could swim.

“Last summer in New York City, we had seven people drown—four of them adults, three of them children, all of them of minority descent.”

Because of the victims’ race, the gruesome incident has swelled interest in an obscure yet startling statistic: Some 70 percent of African-American youth can’t swim, and drowning rates for young blacks are far higher than for whites. Every summer, the grim news reports roll out like clockwork. Two weeks ago, a 12-year-old boy drowned in a neighbor’s pool in Maryland; his uncle then drowned trying to save him. The week before that, a pair of teenage boys were found at the bottom of a swimming pool in Iowa. And a month prior to that, an 11-year-old boy drowned in a swimming pool on Long Island. In every case, the young victim was African American and did not know how to swim.

“What happened in Louisiana is a tragedy,” says freestyle sprint swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, only the third African American ever to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. “My heart feels very heavy when I hear of these things.”

For many people, swimming is one of those rudimentary skills that they can’t even remember learning, like walking or riding a bike. This used to be the case for most black people, too, until slavery entered the picture.

“If a slave could swim, he could escape, so a fear of water was put into people, and that fear has been passed down throughout the generations,” says Agnes Davis, president and CEO of Swim, Swim, Swim, I Say, the local partner of the Make a Splash swimming program in Harlem. Davis says she started her academy in 2009 after she got laid off from a high-paying job in the medical field. “What made me decide to do this,” she explains, “was that last summer in New York City, we had seven people drown—four of them adults, three of them children, all of them of minority descent.”

During the 20th century, racial segregation again conspired to drive blacks further from the water. Public swimming facilities that were built across the country in the early and mid-1900s were often for whites only. As Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, told NPR, even in cities that did not have an official policy of segregation, “Whites set up, essentially, sentinel guards at the entrance to the pool, and when black swimmers tried to come in and access them, they were beaten up, sometimes with clubs.”

Perhaps because of these factors, even today, blacks appear to be more prone to hydrophobia than whites. Dr. Carol C. Irwin, assistant professor of health and sport sciences at the University of Memphis, is one of the authors of the latest study on swimming abilities among minorities, which surveyed more than 2,000 minority children and parents in Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Memphis, San Diego, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. “The parents and the kids fear drowning and injury when they are near the water,” she says. “We found this over and over again.”

Davis, who has been swimming all her life, describes this fear vividly. “Imagine someone gripping your hand so hard that they cut your blood supply and your hand goes numb” she says. “I've had kids and parents do that to me. That's how real the fear is. And we have had to work through that. I've had kids screaming bloody murder because they don't want to put their faces in the water.”

According to Dr. Irwin, other variables come into play, too. “Fear of drowning and fear of injury was absolutely the most significant” among racial minorities, she explains, “but the next really big one was lack of parental encouragement. And then the third variable was personal-appearance issues.”

Of course, says Davis, the lack of parental encouragement is just a corollary of the fear. “What happens,” she says, “is that when the parents are afraid, they transmit the fear to the child.”

And personal appearance, as silly as it sounds, is a serious issue for black women, says Davis. Many African-American women, she says, are averse to swimming because they don’t want to ruin their high-maintenance hairstyles. “I know it's hard for a guy to understand,” she says, “but for women of color, this is a big deal.” And she says any educational program needs to address this as a legitimate concern. “I'll tell you, the fact is that African-American women spend a lot of money on their hair—a lot, and I can say this because I'm African American. So they are always afraid of what [water or chlorine] is going to do to their hair. So what I do is I recommend products that I use, because there are many products out there that help protect your hair while you're swimming. You can deal with it. And in the end, I tell people, 'You know what? You can always go for a wash and set for $10 at the Dominican shop.'”

Lee Pitts, who runs the Lee Pitts Swim School in Fort Myers, Florida, has even theorized that if more black residents of New Orleans had known how to swim, the death toll from Hurricane Katrina might not have been as high as it was. “If they had some advanced swimming skills, just a basic dog paddle, they could have survived,” he told The Brooklyn Ink. “Just enough to get to safety.”

Olympian Cullen Jones, who himself almost drowned when he was 5, is also trying to get adults into the pool as he travels across the country promoting the Make a Splash initiative, which aims to teach minorities to swim. “I always tell them, it's never too late,” he says. “I explain to them how water works, because water is something that all kids love to be around, and it’s a big problem when parents don't think it's important to get their kids into swimming”

Embracing swimming as a sport, says Davis, can also open many doors. “Many parents don't realize that there's scholarship money involved in swimming. We always think of basketball or football, but swimming can also get you into Harvard, Brown, Yale, or Columbia.”

Like Agnes Davis, Cullen Jones wants to promote swimming, but, he says, “It's going to take a lot of time to get people to see it as being a sport where they can say, yeah, I can do that, too. And it's going to take role models in the sport, much like Venus and Serena in tennis. It's going to take somebody who gets a gold medal and sets the path, and I'm hoping to be that person. I had a great 2008, got a gold medal, though I think a lot of people didn't see that. But hopefully in 2012 I'll go to the Olympics again, and hopefully get some more medals, and kind of put the sport on the map.”

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.