Tragedy at Red River: Race, Privilege, and Learning to Swim

Aug 03 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She blogs every day at Sociological Images.

One year ago today six black teenagers died in the Louisiana Red River.  They were wading in waist deep water when one, 15-year-old DeKendrix Warner, fell off an underwater ledge.  He struggled to swim and, one by one, six of his cousins and friends jumped in to help him and each other.  Warner was the only survivor.  The family members of the children watched in horror; none of them knew how to swim.

This draws attention to a rarely discussed and deadly disparity between blacks and whites.  Black people, especially black women, are much less likely than white people to know how to swim.  And, among children, 70% have no or low ability to swim.  The figure below, from the International Swimming Hall of Fame, shows that 77% of black women and 44% of black men say that they don’t know how to swim.  White women are as likely as black men, but much less likely than black women to report that they can’t swim.  White men are the most confident in their swimming ability.

This translates into real tragedy.  Black people are significantly more likely to die from drowning than white people (number of drownings out of 100,000):

Why are black people less likely to learn to swim than whites?  Dr. Caroline Heldman, at FemmePolitical, argues that learning to swim is a class privilege.  To learn to swim, it is helpful to have access to a swimming pool.  Because a disproportionate number of blacks are working class or poor means that they don’t have backyard swimming pools; while residential segregation and economic disinvestment in poor and minority neighborhoods means that many black children don’t have access to community swimming pools.  Or, if they do, they sometimes face racism when they try to access them.

Even if all of these things are in place, however, learning to swim is facilitated by lessons.  If parents don’t know how to swim, they can’t teach their kids.  And if they don’t have the money to pay someone else, their kids may not learn.

I wonder, too, if the disparity between black women and men is due, in part, to the stigma of “black hair.”   Because we have racist standards of beauty, some women invest significant amounts of time and money on their hair in an effort to make it straight or wavy and long.  Getting their hair wet often means undoing this effort.  Then again, there is a gap between white men and white women too, so perhaps there is a more complicated gender story here.

These are my initial guesses at explaining the disparities.  Your thoughts?

12 responses so far

  • becca says:

    The differences in gender are interesting. Probably just a sign of how much more boys are encouraged in physical skills. Although another complication is that it's self-report. Men may be more likely to think the partial drowning-resistance imparted to them by semi-competent dogpaddling qualifies them as a 'swimmer'. In any event, I'm pretty sure boys/men are more likely to be at risk of 'daredevil' drowning. From what I've seen, for the stunts they pull, boys and men are more likely to overestimate their abilities.

    I do kind of wonder if there is a tendency for white people to make poor swim instructors for black people. There are some stereotypes about swim ability and race, so that's one factor. However there is also an actual difference in mean bone density- and thus buoyancy. When they teach you to swim, they like to say "you can float. You will not sink". This is less true for thin children than it is for chubby toddlers, and it is less true for people with very high bone density than those with average bone density. This was mentioned in my Red Cross Water Safety Instructor class, but it was handled a little awkwardly.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I was in New Orleans when they closed all the city swimming pools rather than integrate them. At the University of Texas, early 1950's, all female students who could not swim were required to take a swimming class. That is where my wife learned to swim. there was no such requirement for males (and no black students to consider). I learned to swim in a stock tank on the ranch.

  • Isabel says:

    In some areas of California with many Latino agricultural workers there are programs in place to address a similar issue. Many immigrants do not know how to swim but want to enjoy the cool river beaches on their days off, resulting in occasional tragic results. I haven't heard anything about how successful the programs, which involve things like outreach and free lessons, have been.

    "Dr. Caroline Heldman, at FemmePolitical, argues that learning to swim is a class privilege. "

    The link went to some wordpress template page, although her name is on it.

    Swimming lessons are relatively inexpensive (private lessons are not necessary) and all children should learn. My parents were working class immigrants who did not know how to swim yet all their kids become swimmers.

    However, in our case, there WAS a local community park that provided lessons as part of an inexpensive four-week day camp session. We went every year. It is indeed a tragedy when community pools close.

  • Namnezia says:

    I agree with Isabel, swim lessons are not that expensive and sometimes free in community pools. In my city there are free swim lessons for kids of all ages. So I don't think access to facilities can explain everything. But I don't really have any other explanations either.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Time off to take kids to the pool? Distance traveled? Public transit to the pools? Open hours?

    C'mon Namnezia.

    • Namnezia says:

      Most places have classes saturday mornings.

      • Isabel says:

        I agree; times have changed. Pools are closing.

        "Time off to take kids to the pool? Distance traveled? Public transit to the pools? Open hours? "

        My parents worked and/or didn't drive; we managed.

      • Isabel says:

        Drugmonkey, the children of the agricultural workers that I was referring to are well-represented in the local soccer leagues (among other sports and activities), with both boys and girls playing from an early age and older boys often working as assistant coaches.

        Somehow their parents manage to afford the uniforms, and their entire extended families show up every Saturday to cheer them on. Raising kids takes money, for all socioeconomic classes. Most families can manage Scouts, or Little League, or group swimming lessons and spending time at the community pool in summer.

        So in their case (agricultural workers) not emphasizing swimming appears to be a cultural thing, although I don't know why. Racism, issues of modesty may well play a part for some groups. But the bigger issue right now is the closing of community pools! Outreach is useless without access to pools.

  • Zuska says:

    There is a reason why Jane Margolis titled her book "Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing". She found the history of African Americans and swimming pools in America to be instructive for the situation of African Americans and Latinos with regard to computer science, and refers her readers to Jeff Wiltse's book "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America". It was published in 2007, but garnered intense interest in the Philadelphia area in 2009 after the infamous Valley Swim Club incident, where 60 day campers - who had paid to have access to the private swim club - were asked to leave, and suspected that the reason was their race. (The fallout from the controversy ultimately resulted in bankruptcy for the club; the PA Human Rights Commission found probable cause that racism was involved.)

    It's not just the class privilege bit that makes people of color less likely to learn to swim than white people. There is a systematic history of conscious segregation and denying access to public and private swimming pools - in part, because of anxieties about contamination, and in part because of the perceived need to keep black men from seeing the white wimmin in their increasingly skimpy and hawt bathing suits.

    In places like Atlantic City, this resulted in segregated sections of the beach (known there as Chicken Bone Beach and frequented by many famous African Americans, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr).

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    I was lucky enough to have access to a pool. My mother to this day can't swim, but since we lived by a body of water insisted that her children learn. She didn't teach us. We got lessons. Not everyone can do that, and that's a shame.