I grew up in affluent suburbs where backyard swimming pools were common. My parents swam, and made sure my siblings and I could swim; we were dropped off several times a week for lessons at Mrs. Heath’s pool, practicing our strokes while Mrs. Heath sat on the edge of the pool with her Virginia Slims. My siblings and I were on the municipal swim team, at least until our swimming hole, nicknamed the Mudhole, was shut down due to septic-tank contamination. My swimming now is greatly curtailed by my unwillingness to appear in public in a bathing suit, but once I’m in the water, it all comes back to me.
Swimming came so naturally and was such a part of my life that I never really gave any thought to the fact that there are a hell of a lot of people who just never learned to swim. That is, until I realized that my sister-in-law S’s reluctance to join my brother M and I while snorkeling in Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay was due less to the general tetchiness she had been displaying during the family trip and more to the fact that she hadn’t learned to swim until she was an adult, and she was far more nervous about the sharp rocks and tides than M and I were (I wound up unharmed despite getting bashed against the rocks, yet broke my toe climbing over a baby gate in my sister’s house). M is a scuba diver, and since they had gone diving on their honeymoon, I had assumed that S knew how to swim. Turns out he just had undue influence in the choice of activities on their shared honeymoon.
Actually, I should clarify: I was surprised that S hadn’t learned to swim as a child because S is white (and grew up in a military family; given that the Red Cross got involved in swimming lessons because so many soldiers drowned during WWII because they didn’t know how to swim, you’d think that military brats would be encouraged to learn). I would have been far less surprised with S’s non-swimmer status had S been black and raised in the city.
FOR at least one day a year, the overwhelmingly white world of swimming gets turned on its ear in places like Asphalt Green, a fitness center tucked away in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Hundreds of children swarm the pool deck, goggled faces of every hue popping out of the water after triumphantly finishing a lap at the Big Swim, the culmination of a program that fights doggedly to close the sport’s racial gap. That divide, born of a slavery-era myth that blacks cannot swim, has created a world where black children drown at rates up to five times higher than white children, and has left competitive swimming bereft of minorities.
“We are putting our finger in one small hole in the dam,” said Carol Tweedy, executive director of the Asphalt Green, as she stood among the children, their parents howling encouragement from the bleachers.
Closing the gap is not particularly easy. The factors that fostered it — race, class, tradition, culture — are stubborn, and the solutions are expensive. But the cost of not closing it is measured in lives lost. As public beaches and pools open for the summer, the issue is being addressed on both local and national levels.
And the issue really is safety. Sure, there’s the issue that swimming, like golf and tennis, has been a sport traditionally closed to minorities. But not having a good serve or being unable to sink a putt isn’t going to get you killed. Hell, even being a strong swimmer is no guarantee of staying safe if you get pulled into a strong current, but it at least gives you a fighting chance. Someone who can’t swim who goes to the beach (or, say, has to swim from a flooded home) can drown if they get pulled into the undertow, even if they stay close to shore. And I know from experience that the undertow on the Jersey Shore can be nasty — I got caught in it once when I was maybe 4 or 5 and tumbled over and over until I was certain that I was going to die. And then my father got to me and pulled me out. (And once I got the sand out of my various orifices, I wanted to go back in.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death among children; and black children and teenagers, from ages 5 to 19, are 2.3 times more likely to drown than whites in this age group. For children 10 to 14, the rate is five times higher. Dr. Christine Branche, director of the C.D.C.’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said that there was not enough data to draw conclusions about the rate of drowning for Hispanic children, although data on other minorities show higher drowning rates over all than for white children.
The statistics have not drawn widespread concern, even though the C.D.C. and Safe Kids Worldwide, whose mission is to prevent accidental childhood injuries, have publicized the need for water safety.
Mr. Cruzat said he considered it USA Swimming’s obligation to address the problem. “We don’t need to wait until it’s a national health issue,” he said.
Dr. Branche, who has been studying drowning data for 15 years, said, “The differences by race have been very consistent over the years,” adding that “few people feel comfortable reporting these differences.”
Think about that. Black kids are drowning — drowning — at a rate five times greater than white kids, and it hasn’t drawn widespread attention, despite the efforts of the CDC. Good for USA Swimming for not waiting for that to happen before doing something about it.
And like many other issues that are susceptible to the canard that “Well, it’s an individual problem, so the solution must focus on individuals,” once you scratch the surface, you see that there are societal, cultural, economic and structural barriers to closing the swimming gap:
For black children, the barriers to swimming are high.
Although studies have shown that many Africans were avid swimmers when they were brought over as slaves, most slaves born in the United States were not allowed to learn to swim because it was a means of escape. That created generations of nonswimmers and spawned the myth that African-Americans could not swim. Though widely discredited, a 1969 study titled “The Negro and Learning to Swim: The Buoyancy Problem Related to Reported Biological Difference,” was printed in The Journal of Negro Education and fed the stereotype.
The problem was compounded by segregation, which kept blacks out of many pools and beaches.
The challenge of attracting minority swimmers today, Mr. Cruzat said, is largely economic. In 2004, nearly 28 percent of minority children in the United States lived below the poverty level, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. And swimming lessons are often expensive. At Asphalt Green, a beginning class costs $27 for each hourlong session, and the classes last 13 to 15 weeks.
Chlorine, a staple in public pools, is also an issue. Dr. Jeanine Downie, a dermatologist in Montclair, N.J., who is African-American and was a competitive swimmer, said that chlorine can turn black skin “ashy” and cause processed hair, popular among black women, to break off or discolor.
“The hair issue is a big one,” Dr. Downie said. “African-American women are always saying: ‘What am I going to do with my hair? I can’t get it wet.’ ”
Dr. Downie said that she told patients simply to wash their hair immediately and use moisturizer on their skin to prevent any damage. Other barriers go beyond practical considerations. If parents do not know how to swim, they can see less value in their children’s learning. Parents often react to the drowning numbers by urging their children to stay away from the water, thereby passing on the fear.