Why don't black Americans swim?


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May 19, 2010
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que sera sera
A month ago, six African-American teenagers drowned in a single incident in Louisiana, prompting soul-searching about why so many young black Americans can't swim.

When 15-year-old DeKendrix Warner accidentally stepped into deeper water while wading in the Red River in Shreveport, he panicked.

JaTavious Warner, 17, Takeitha Warner, 13, JaMarcus Warner, 14, Litrelle Stewart, 18, Latevin Stewart, 15, and LaDarius Stewart, 17, rushed to help him and each other.

None of them could swim. All six drowned. DeKendrix was rescued by a passer-by.

US swimming stats

* USA Swimming/University of Memphis study found ethnic differences
* 68.9% of African-American children with no or low ability to swim
* 57.9% of Hispanic children
* 41.8% of white children
* CDC recorded 3,443 fatal accidental drownings in 2007
* Drowning is second greatest cause of accidental death in children under 14
* African-American children aged 5 to 14 3.1 times more likely to drown
* Study quizzed 2,000 children and parents in six US cities

Maude Warner, mother of three of the victims, and the other adults present also couldn't swim.

The US has almost 3,500 accidental drownings every year, almost 10 a day.

But according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fatal drowning rate of African-American children aged five-14 is three times that of white children.

A recent study sponsored by USA Swimming uncovered equally stark statistics.

Just under 70% of African-American children surveyed said they had no or low ability to swim. Low ability merely meant they were able to splash around in the shallow end. A further 12% said they could swim but had "taught themselves".

The study found 58% of Hispanic children had no or low swimming ability. For white children, the figure was only 42%.

"It is an epidemic that is almost going unnoticed," says Sue Anderson, director of programmes and services at USA Swimming.

The swimming body would like all children to be taught to swim.

"We would like it to be like seatbelts and bicycle helmets," says Ms Anderson.

But the situation in the US can vary hugely even within a single state.
Cullen Jones Olympic gold medallist Cullen Jones is a spokesman for swimming initiatives

Unlike the UK, where learning to swim is enshrined in the national curriculum except in Scotland, the ultimate responsibility in the US often lies with parents.

"I would love to make it a rule like they have in the UK," says Cullen Jones, a gold medallist in the freestyle 100m relay in Beijing, and a spokesman for USA Swimming's Make a Splash campaign.

"It isn't a requirement, it isn't a priority in the US."

Jones's mother took him to swimming lessons after he nearly drowned at a theme park aged five. By eight he was swimming competitively.

The Make a Splash campaign is targeting all non-swimmers and their parents but there is a particular focus on ethnic minority families.

Many black parents are not teaching their children to swim.

Some might assume the fundamental reasons would be lack of money for swimming lessons or living in areas where there were no pools, but the reality is more complex.

"Fear of drowning or fear of injury was really the major variable," says Prof Carol Irwin, a sociologist from the University of Memphis, who led the study for USA Swimming.

"Swimming never became a part of African- American recreational culture”
Prof Jeff Wiltse Author, Contested Waters

Typically, those children who could not swim also had parents who could not swim.

"Parents who don't know how to swim are very likely to pass on not knowing how to swim to their children," says Ms Anderson.

In focus groups for the study, Prof Irwin said many black parents who could not swim evinced sentiments like: "My children are never going to learn to swim because I'm scared they would drown."

The parents' very fear of their children drowning was making that fate more likely.

The major reason behind the problem could lie in the era of segregation says Prof Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.

"The history of discrimination… has contributed to the drowning and swimming rates," says Prof Wiltse.

In his work he identified two periods of a boom in swimming rates in the US - in the 1920s and 1930s when recreational swimming became popular and the 1950s and 1960s when the idea of swimming as a sport really took off.
Black children in a swimming lesson There are historical reasons why black children do not learn to swim

The first boom was marked by the construction of about 2,000 new municipal pools across the nation.

"Black Americans were largely and systematically denied access to those pools," he notes.

"Swimming never became a part of African- American recreational culture."

In the northern US that segregation in pools ended in the 1940s and early 1950s, but many white swimmers responded by abandoning the municipal pools and heading off to private clubs in the suburbs where segregation continued to be enforced.

"Municipal pools became a low public priority," he notes.

After the race riots of the 1960s, many cities did start building pools in predominantly black areas, says Prof Wiltse, but there was still a problem. Many of the new pools were small - often only 20 by 40ft (six by 12m) and 3.5ft (1m) deep.

Theories for low black American swimming rates

* Propagation of incorrect scientific theories such as black people being much less buoyant
* Historic factors going as far back as slaves not being allowed to learn to swim
* Denial of access to pools in 1920s and 30s causing ripple effect to present day
* Lack of municipal pools in predominantly black neighbourhoods in 1960s onwards
* Perception of swimming as elitist or white sport

"They didn't really accommodate swimming. They attracted young kids who would stand in them and splash about. There really wasn't an effort to teach African-American children to swim in these pools."

Although there are many poor or working class white children who cannot swim for similar reasons, swimming has gained an image as a "white sport".

"It is [seen as] a country club sport that only very rich kids get to participate in. The swimming pool is [seen as] a very elitist thing to have in your backyard," says Prof Irwin.

Bishop Larry Brandon, of the Praise Temple Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral, knew the Warner family, and is now persuading other pastors and ministers to use their pulpits to promote swimming.

Shreveport has quickly established a new swimming programme in the victims names and there is a drive to challenge misconceptions about swimming.

As well as the fear factor, Prof Irwin's study found that appearance was also a reason for African-Americans avoiding swimming.
Cullen Jones in swimming lesson Jones believes progress is being made

Black respondents, far more than white or Hispanic respondents, were sometimes concerned about the effect chlorinated water would have on their hair.

"African-American women, many of them if they go the beauty shop and get their hair fixed they are not going to swim," says Bishop Brandon.

Perhaps the most alarming thing is that the studies suggest that those who cannot swim - like the Warners and Stewarts - often spend time in pools and other swimming sites.

"Kids are going to be by the water, they love being by the water, and that's something that we really need to make a priority," says Jones.

"Here everybody knows how to drive a car. It should also be a rite of passage to learn how to swim."

BBC News - Why don't black Americans swim?
Definately doing it at school helped me. My parents can't swim and there might be a chance I would not be able to if it wasn't for school.

My son is starting from school this year (age 7), though like most of the kids in his class he has been to lessons for a while now.
There aren't school swimming lessons here in Ireland, not in most schools anyway, but both of my children have had lessons and my son is a strong swimmer, my daughter wouldn't be as good at it as he is, but can swim quite well.

We had lessons as children as well, but my mother never learnt how to swim.
no school swimming lessons for my kids either, i'm paying for them to start this September at a local new pool. Not cheap either but it's something u don't want them to miss out on
I noticed this a lot when holidaying in the water parks in Florida.

Nearly every African-American and Hispanic parent/child was wearing life vests in the water.

I did wonder why this was the case............
Why would you write that ?

because its true m8.

i was in the states for a few month a few years ago. i decided to try an American macD's. i walked in and EVERYONE turnt and stared at me, it was like the pool ball stopping as u walk into the bar ad. i was he only white in there. this was in a beach town with an open mix of races.

i did feel unwelcome'd and a little bit intimidated.
why wouldnt i

bit of a silly thread imo

trying not to be stereotypical but if you chucked a kfc bucket in the sea i wonder how long it would take em to learn how to tread water whilst dipping their chicken into bbq sauce

i learnt how to swim at an early age cos i wanted to - considering the planet is mostly water it is common sense lol

if it was in this country there would be an outrage to deny free swimming lessons shortly after a few ethnics drowned
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I see you like to be an equal opportunity stereo-typist then. If its not muslims in the UK, its black people in the US.
Here we go again. I was in two minds about whether to post this thread or not, can we not just discuss cultural differences without it turning into a slanging match.

We don't get free swimming lessons in Ireland, or at least we didn't when my kids were in primary school. I think they were talking about bringing something in a few years ago, but i don't know whether they did or not. And then that opens a new can of worms, you have people on about inappropriate touching etc, i wouldn't blame any school teacher that didn't want to take small kids swimming.
I do think swimming lessons at school are good idea and should be included however,

Dont you think it should be down the to the parents to get off their lazzy asses and teach them themselves?

Parents these days seem just to want to ship their offspring off to school each day and hope they grow up to be perfect human being by letting the schools do all the work. More parents should be more active in their kids education.
I do think swimming lessons at school are good idea and should be included however,

Dont you think it should be down the to the parents to get off their lazzy asses and teach them themselves?

Parents these days seem just to want to ship their offspring off to school each day and hope they grow up to be perfect human being by letting the schools do all the work. More parents should be more active in their kids education.

yeah but there's a few different ways to look at that Kruger. First of all you have the families where both parents work, and they don't have time to get involved in extra curricular activities. Secondly, you have people that genuinely don't have the money, it can be really expensive to pay for soccer, swimming, guitar, ballet, karate etc etc, the list goes on :(

And then there are also the people that don't give a sh1t and should never have had kids in the first place.
i take my kids swimming but i'm no swimming teacher, the same way i help with maths homework - but i'm not maths teacher.
brining up kids are expensive eva, but if you can afford it then don't do it.

so your saying ppl who both parents work dont need to make time for their kids? ;)

i got a m8 who has kids, where both parents work, he used to take his girl to the Scottish gymnastics 3 times a week for 3 hours a go, then take his son to piano, jiu jitsu lesson. Then on the weekends he would take them out to cinema, parks, events etc.

Now he has a very high demanding job and worked a lot of hours and at weekends on night he done dj-ing aswell, so by that the excuse for both parents working and not having time is just a lame excuse imho. He made time and done it, i dont know how he done it but he did and well done him.

i just hate the attitude where ppl think ach the school/teachers will do it and that goes for everything from activities to religion. ppl get their kids christened and then send them to a particular school to let the school do the job. As a parent they made the promise to the church to bring them up in that faith but they dont they just send them to a school that wil do it for them.
No i'm not saying that families where both parents work don't need to make time for their kids, i'm saying that in reality sometimes both parents have to work and can end up physically and mentally exhausted. Your friend sounds like a great dad and his kids are lucky to have him.

We all try to do our best for our kids, well i hope that most people do anyway, and in an ideal world would all have plenty of time and money to ferry them around from activity to activity, but unfortunately in this world, things aren't perfect. Plus i remember from my kids being smaller, they would be dying to do something and then once you enrolled them they'd be bored with it after a month!

And i don't want to get into the religion thing, that's a whole different thread ;)
But you do know the basics m8 dont you?

yes, which is why i do both with all 3 of my kids - i also know i don't know EVERYTHING about both subjects so let the professionals teach them properly.

my kids do less at school than i did (only 20 or so years ago) and get more to do at home with parents than i ever did - i feel there's a lot more put onto parents than in my day and i just wonder why how it was done when i was at school (only in the 80's) was so wrong? i turned out ok, felt loved by my parents, did lots of after school things AND still owned at Chase HQ on the Speccy ;)
oh m8 feel for you, a speccy awww, we all know you had to have a commodore64 lol :p

Dont think teaching in the 80's was wrong, just the way they thought best at the time. The teachers themselves will learn and try new things and like all professions will evolve. Seems now every kid get print outs home to fill in and gold stars etc. But teaching methods will always change.

any hoot back on to opriginal topic.

is it not something to do with black ppls skin that they cant swim well. i know you had that eddie the eagle type swimmer in the Olympics but i always thought it was something to do with the water Resistance of their skin and the afro hair.