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Six drowned spark black swimming debate

Photo credit: AP

Drowning - grief in local community

Six African-American teenagers drowned in a single tragic incident in the United States Louisiana last month.

The tragedy has prompted many questions about the widely held perception about why many Black people have not learned to swim. The BBC recently explored this subject.

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.

Despite the fact that none of them could swim they rushed headlong in a heroic effort to save their friend. All six of them drowned. DeKendrix was eventually rescued by a passer-by.

The heroic efforts of the brave youngsters and their tragic deaths have prompted questions that have explored the strongly held perception within black communities about why so many black people have not learned to swim.

USA Swimming/University of Memphis study found ethnic differences 68.9% of African-American children with no or low ability to swim. African-American children aged 5 to 14 3.1 times more likely to drown.

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.

Many black parents are simply not teaching their children to swim and those children whose parents cannot swim usually cannot swim themselves.

In looking at reasons why there should be such racial disparities activists have argued that poverty, unemployment and lack of money for private swimming lessons or living in deprived areas where there were no swimming pools are the major reasons.

However Prof Carol Irwin, a sociologist from the University of Memphis, who led the study for USA Swimming has said there is something more profound going on. He stated:

“Fear of drowning or fear of injury were really main reasons…typically, those children who could not swim also had parents who could not swim.”

In focus groups for the study, Prof Irwin said many black parents who could not swim reported:

“My children are never going to learn to swim because I’m scared they would drown.”

The irony is that parents’ fear of their children drowning was making that fate more likely. Another 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. 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 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 inner city uprisings of the 1960s, some cities did start building pools in predominantly black areas, says Prof Wiltse, but there was still a problem. Many of the new pools were very shallow and very small.

“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 victim’s 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.

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.

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