Monday, January 27, 2020
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Black lives matter in swimming pools, too

Ebony Rosemond, who runs the organization Black Kids Swim, suggests in the Washington Post that African-American children don’t learn to swim and that too many black lives are lost to drowning as well as police shootings.

“While police killings of black people sometimes attract front-page attention, black lives lost due to drowning are largely ignored,” she writes. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children drown at 5.5 times the rate of other children. And in the United States, where 10 people drown every day, that is a lot of black lives lost.”

Even as we Marylanders worry about air conditioning in the schools of Baltimore County, Ms Rosemond points out that not a single elementary, middle, or high school in predominantly black Prince George’s County has a swimming pool. She blames this on a continuation of Jim Crow Law-like thinking on the part of communities across America, but some blame falls on the black community itself, where fear of the water, not stereotypes held by whites, prevents black children from taking swimming lessons or joining others at a pool.

Infographic for young children about learning to swim

1000 Drops of Water Campaign at a new pool in Michigan City, Ind. (Indiana University)


As the infographic from Indiana University Health suggests, as part of a campaign launched last year in Michigan City, learning to swim should play a prominent role in our young people’s lives. It could save their lives one day, just as learning how to behave when a police officer pulls you over in a traffic stop might.

The problem with the infographic is that it says to kids, “Ask your parents to help you learn to swim as early as possible.” That’s good advice, but it misses the mark in our black communities because black parents are just as afraid of the water as black children are. An African-American woman, who had a 4-year-old son, once said to me as we were driving past a community pool in Naperville, Illinois, “I had two cousins that drowned.” She then said her son wouldn’t be going anywhere near the pool, which was provided in her community.

There’s not much we can do about the fears people have. I’m afraid of wasps, for example, and I avoid places if there’s a wasp. If a black person is afraid of the water for whatever reason, he is likely to avoid swimming pools. I’m pretty sure being stung by a wasp wouldn’t kill me though, as drowning kills many African-American boys and girls.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the problem is compounded by an availability issue—schools don’t have pools—a situation we might be able to fix. In Naperville, there were pools everywhere but no black children at them, I suspect, because black parents were afraid their sons and daughters would drown.

We have to end this cycle, just as much as we have to end the cycle of black lives being lost to police brutality. America has a lot of water, and if black children want to grow old in America, we should work to eliminate all threats to their lives, especially those from preventable causes.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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