The Swimming Gap

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.

17 comments for “The Swimming Gap

  1. Richard Aubrey
    June 19, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    One summer in the Sixties, I ran a swimming program for blacks at the “Holly Springs Colored Pool”. That was the Mississippi Holly Springs. The taxpayers had ponied up for two pools. That they had to be segregated was unfortunate, but they both had water in them, and were open a good part of each day.

    We had with us a Water Safety Instructor who could teach an anvil to swim, and, more to the point, teach others of us to teach an anvil to at least do the survival float.

    It was not pleasant. However, on account of race was a big issue in those days, I had studied various aspects in college. Physical anthropology is sometimes inconvenient. As it happens, blacks have a slightly higher specific gravity than whites. The confidence we get from floating–I should say that at that time nobody had a higher specific gravity than I and I could only stay up by great effort–is less present. What worked for white kids (“reach and pull, keep feet kicking and knees loose”) resulted in a slow submergence for a lot of our students (late adolescence), which, our WSI observed, she had not seen teaching non-swimmer whites.

    Again, seeing how blacks do in sprints, we look at quick-twitch muscle fibers, calf-length, and certain other factors to explain the advantages blacks have. It would be odd if there were no negative results, only positive ones.

    I know it’s not done to point out athletic success, but it is done in physical anthropology and related life sciences, although talking about it is not cool.

    Where I grew up, the nearest municipal pool was integrated and was miles away. The nearest high school pool was rarely open to the public. I was no more privileged to learn swimming than anybody else.

    However, for most people, being in deep water is disquieting, and the additional difficulty involved in not floating means the fun just isn’t there. I have bulked up considerably and can now float a bit, but I have never enjoyed it as my friends who were not as bony in their youth do. Given that, the propensity to take advantage of the opportunity as opposed to something else seems to explain much of the issue. It isn’t that blacks can’t swim at all. It’s that it is less enjoyable to get into water over your head, so, like all of us, they avoid the unenjoyable when they have the chance.

    The other reason for drowning accidents is unfamiliarity with safe boating practices, which is a function of economic class.

  2. tql
    June 19, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    I think that there are more pressing dangers to black youth than “black kids can’t swim”. I think it has more to do with culture (the hair issue is HUGE), than access.

  3. Arianna
    June 19, 2006 at 3:05 pm

    $27 for an hourlong class? No wonder Americans are so out of shape! Where I grew up, it’s still only $35 (Canadian) for a whole summer of weekly group lessons.

    tql, while there may be more pressing dangers to black youth than drowning, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be raised. It’s not like zuzu is diminishing the amount of time than can be spent discussing other issues by writing a post about lack of access to swimming amenities. I think it’s important to raise these issues, as a 5x higher drowning rate isn’t something that’s often thought about, and is emblematic of all the issues that go under the radar in discussions about race & poverty.

  4. June 19, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Given that blacks in the US comprise only, what, eleven or twelve per cent of the population, a drowning rate five times higher than that of whites is a serious health concern. Holy shit.

  5. darkeyes066
    June 19, 2006 at 3:30 pm

    Just because there are more pressing issues doesn’t make this issue a non-issue.

    The pool issue in Milwaukee makes me exceedingly angry. How Milwaukee went from being a city with a history of socialist mayors to a city where the public pools are expected to “pay for themselves” is another story for another time. I’d like to point out the most sick example of the lack of civic concern I personally witnessed.

    Kosciuszko Park is in a poor neighborhood. It had a lap/Olympic pool that was cheap to access. It was, in truth, suffering from declining usership and was replaced by a water park (why was it suffering from decreased usership? I don’t think anyone asked.)

    Walking through the park one steamy day, the sounds of guard whistles and children’s squeals while going down slides coming from the water park in the near distance, as I was passing the pond and all the mini-ponds that surrounded it (flooding from a recent storm) I came across three black children playing in the dirty, standing water. No chlorine to worry about, just a few potential health hazards including, oh, death from drowning.

    I don’t remember what the cost was a few years ago when I saw this, but currently for children 11 and under, It costs $4.50 to get into the water park whereas lap pools cost 75 cents.

    And how many of the remaining pools will even be open next summer is unknown right now.

    P.S. the simple answer to a “HUGE” cultural hair “issue” is to have the same concession stands that sells ice cream bars and sodas and whatnot also sell – at low cost – swim caps. I hated to even respond to that point because it never was an issue in the pubic school I went to, where swim caps were sold cheaply at the bookstore and were popular with most of the girls of all races.

  6. zuzu
    June 19, 2006 at 3:38 pm

    In fact, swim caps are required at most public pools because hair clogs the drains.

  7. srl
    June 19, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Readers with access to an academic library may want to look up Jeff Wiltse’s dissertation on the history of swimming pools in the US, which describes how swimming pools were major sites of conflict about racial segregation during the early 20th century. I assume that he’s working on turning it into a book now.

  8. Ron O.
    June 19, 2006 at 4:48 pm

    I learned to swim for free from the Chicago Park District. Our local park had an indoor pool. Several other parks within bike-ride distance had pools too. In addition to swim lessons, we had swim meets, pool-based talent shows, lifeguard training and more all for free. I wonder if lessons are still free. Nevertheless, I remember most swimmers were white or hispanic. Black neighborhoods in general had less access to parks.

  9. PG
    June 19, 2006 at 5:13 pm

    There’s a good part in the overall-fantastic book The Water Is Wide about how the African American parents on an island where people had traditionally made their living from the water nonetheless dealt with the issue of water safety by trying to keep their children from getting into it, rather than teaching them how to swim. I wondered why there was a culture of fear of the water, aside from the fact that even fishermen who know how to swim often die at sea, but hadn’t realized that slaves had been deliberately kept from learning to swim.

  10. Norah
    June 19, 2006 at 5:15 pm

    I didn’t know there was a racial element. Actually, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that there were people who couldn’t swim, because I didn’t know any until I met my husband. When he was a kid, a swim-classmate yanked his legs out from under him, he panicked, and hasn’t gone back in since.

  11. La Lubu
    June 19, 2006 at 5:27 pm

    It’s not just cost —it’s accessibility to swim classes. Where I live, there are very, very few swim classes held in the evenings, but there are plenty of swim classes held during the workday. If you aren’t lucky enough to be in the front of the line to get your kid signed up for class, you’re out of luck.

    My daughter is six, and doesn’t know how to swim. I’d like for her to learn, but we haven’t been able to access classes for a couple of years now. I learned how to swim when I was ten; a fluke because we just happened to move to an apartment complex that had a pool. My mom bought me some of those inflatable things you wear on your arm, and I taught myself. Otherwise, I probably still wouldn’t know how to swim.

  12. Sexist Pig but Still Liberal
    June 19, 2006 at 5:33 pm

    Yeah … I thought it was more of a class thing than racial. I come from a culture where it is considered a parental obligation to teach one’s children how to swim, or at least to arrange for instruction, and yet my mother, who was from a working class background, did not know how to swim because her parents didn’t have the patience to teach her and couldn’t afford lessons … whereas my father, in whose family there was some money even though his parents would have otherwise also been working class, was able to get swimming lessons.

    Also, what is the role of polio in the underclass not having access to learning swimming. Before the polio epidemics, public pools were very much frequented by the (urban) poor and working classes who very much then learned to swim — during/after the polio epidemics, it became too dangerous. Of course, by and large in that pre-polio era, most of the African-American population was largely rural …

    As to the issue of “ashiness” … black people are not the only people who get ashy … many people with really dark skin do. As, actually, do those of us who are at the other extreme and particularly melanin-challenged. Yes — the solution is moisturizer: plenty of it! Also, if its not my imagination, those of us who are non-white or at the other extreme, very,very white seem to be more sensative to chlorine than “regular white folk”? Having bad goggles makes this worse, but goggles that help out with this problem are actually very cheap — cheaper than some which make the problem worse!

  13. Richard Aubrey
    June 19, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    Anybody who knows how to swim can teach kids the fundamentals.

    To suggest that because classes are not available–and if they were, at the price, I suspect–kids can’t learn to swim is silly.

    Agency, autonomy, responsibility. Not the function of the state.

  14. La Lubu
    June 20, 2006 at 9:08 am

    Richard, you’re missing the point completely. Swimming classes give you access to that most fundamental of accessories for teaching one how to swim—A POOL. I mean, I’m sure I could eventually teach my daughter how to float and propel herself through the water (I couldn’t teach her proper strokes, because I don’t know them myself.), but without access to a pool (and regular access too—it takes awhile to learn the body coordination of floating), I can’t teach her. And the only way I can get access to a pool is to pay for swim classes. The public pools in my community have daytime swimming classes, but those aren’t accessible to those who must work during the day. Most of the evening time at the public and private pools is dedicated to adult lap swimming and youth swim teams. Working parents have very little opportunity to either teach their own children how to swim, or obtain swim classes for them from someone who (a) actually knows what he/she is doing and (b) knows how to save a drowning person (think about it Richard—not all kids who don’t know how to swim are three years old. Some of them are older and adult or damn-near-adult size. Trying to save a panicky drowning person, especially one your own size or larger, is not the work of amateurs.)

    And one way of using your agency, autonomy, responsibility is by say, agitating for more public park district funds to go towards public pools. Or better yet, to make swimming a part of the school gym curriculum—all those high school pools are sitting around unused in summer!

  15. Ledasmom
    June 20, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    You do, by the way, get “sinkers” among non-blacks as well. I’ve known a few, mostly skinny guys. Some of ’em do float, but under the surface, not on top – not quite so useful.

  16. Regina
    June 20, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    I swear, the older I get, the luckier I feel. As a mixed-race kid (black-white mix, though I identify as black because that’s how I appear at first glance) growing up in Idaho in the 1980s, I almost drowned when I was 8. My parents’ immediate response was mandatory swimming lessons for me and my siblings, at the municipal pool, because they could not handle the stress of teaching us themselves. Part of that stress was that after the near-drowning, I was a problem kid in the pool and needed a lot of coaxing to even put my face in the water for a while after.

    I was definitely affected by “the hair issue”, in that every summer from when I was 9 to 16 my skin got ashy and my hair got bleached out, but I didn’t much care at the time. I was odd that way.

    Richard #13: If the parents cannot swim themselves, or are not good at teaching it, some form of outside help is going to be required.

  17. Diane
    June 20, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    I learned to swim in college because it was required. Colleges aren’t requiring it anymore, and if I were enrolled today I wouldn’t have learned because I was 18 and I felt so stupid for not knowing how to swim. That class was one of the most embarassing things I’ve ever had to do. Especially since we were required to wear these black bathing suits that must have been sewn by cloistered monks because not one girl had a body that fit them. At the other end of the pool the men’s swim team would come in and practice diving and walking on water with breaks to towel off and watch the pitiful girls at the other end shivering and trying not to drown. I was painfully skinny and floated just like a brick but I can’t imagine how much harder it was for the African-American girls in the class. I never knew that this was a holdover from slavery, I just assumed it was because of segregation and poverty.

    In other words, learning to swim was not fun and I still don’t associate it with a good time. But I can save my life because my college required it and gave me time in a huge pool with a qualified instructor.

    I might have learned how to swim as a child had I had parents who could swim or had the money to get me access to said pool and instructor. That’s what I did for my kids and they both swim like fish and can’t understand why a day at the pool isn’t Mom’s idea of perfection. It’s great to hear that some people are continuing to address this need.

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