Enduring Myths, Quick Hits

The Tragic Outcome of the Myth “Black People Can’t Swim”

Photo courtesy of Pxfuel

By Samantha Chaney

Many Americans reminisce about the summers of their childhood when they back stroked through the deep end of their backyard pool or horsed around in a neighborhood public pool. However, many Black children never had an opportunity to create those memories. Lack of access to facilities has left many Black people unable to swim.

There have long been outlandish theories that Black people can’t swim due to their supposed inability to float. Others blamed it on laziness or Black women too afraid of getting their hair wet.

The common myth that many of us have grown up hearing never seems to die. However, the history of Black people and swimming in this country is deeply rooted in discrimination, with deadly consequences.

An average of 3,500 to 4,000 people drowned in the U.S. each year between 2005 and 2014, according to Stop Drowning Now, a nonprofit focused on water safety. That’s about 10 fatal drownings per day; African Americans had the second-highest death rate, after American Indians.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that disparities in drowning rates were greatest for swimming pool deaths, where the rate for Blacks ages 5 to 19 years was 5.5 times the rate for whites. Other settings examined include bathtubs, boating and natural water.

Although aquatics offers many health benefits, it is oftentimes seen as a representation of leisure and luxury to Black people. To many, swimming represents the racial disparities that have always been present in the United States. Many historical factors have contributed to the stark racial gap in drownings across the country.

For decades during the 20th century, many pools were segregated, and relatively few were built to serve Black communities. Lower socioeconomic status has also played a significant role in the lack of swimming abilities throughout the Black community.  Seventy-nine percent of children in households with incomes less than $50,000 have few to no swimming skills.

The USA Swimming Foundation reports, “After the Civil War, African Americans could use any public beach or pool they wanted to use. Theoretically. In reality, what happened was that public facilities were abandoned or, more often, privatized. And black folks were excluded.”

The foundation said, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 secured [black people’s] right to have the same access to swimming facilities as whites. Unfortunately, by that time, blacks had internalized the lie that claimed they could not swim.”

The  YMCA found that 64 percent of Black/African-American children cannot swim, while for white people, the figure is 40 percent.  Organizations like Black Kids Swim have been created to highlight the accomplishments of professional Black swimmers, and to encourage those who are interested in learning  more about the sport. 

Learning to swim is factored into the national curriculum in many countries, including the United Kingdom.  However, the responsibility for swimming lessons in the United States ultimately falls on parents. But the inability to swim  is not limited to children. Many Black parents have few swimming skills or none at all, which, according to Stop Drowning Now, has impacted 78 percent of African-American children and their ability to swim.

Erika Binger, founder of V3 Sports, has made it her mission to expose youth that traditionally have not been exposed to aquatics. V3 Sports will be breaking ground on an indoor Olympic-sized pool in North Minneapolis, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Minnesota, next year. Binger says, “Our goal, although it’s incredibly ambitious, is to provide swim lessons to every kid in North Minneapolis. Because we know the best way to prevent youth from dying by drowning is swim lessons, there’s a direct correlation.”

Such efforts appear to be paying off. Among Black people, the drowning rate of children ages 19 and younger is down over 20 years, from 2.61 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.80 in 2018, according to the CDC. That compares with rates for white children of 1.36 in 1999 and 1.02 in 2018.

For adults, however, the death rate has not budged, and has even inched up. For Black adults, it was 1.35 in 1999 and 1.37 in 2018, compared with white adult rates of 1.05 in 1999 and 1.15 in 2018.

V3 Sports plans to provide lessons to both parents and children in North Minneapolis. When asked why it is important for parents to learn how to swim too, Binger replied, “Their parents didn’t learn to swim, and they didn’t want to have their children around water because then they couldn’t save them.”

October 20, 2020

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