It‘s no surprise that black people have a very complicated relationship with the pool in America. In fact, up until around 1950, many pools were segregated. In fact, in the 1920s, pools were sprouting up in low-income white neighborhoods, immigrant communities, and working-class white areas, but they avoided predominately black communities.
According to Jeff Wiltse (”Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America") in his NPR interview, in cities where there weren’t specific segregated laws, “the police and the city officials allowed, and in some cases encouraged, white swimmers, to literally beat black swimmers out of the water, as a means of segregating pools, as a means of intimidating them from trying to access pools.”
And so once pools were officially desegrated, as we see in most aspects of American culture (i.e., neighborhoods, schools, community centers, etc.), white flight occurred. The moment that black people started coming to the pool, white folks began going to private pools, building pools in their backyards, and swimming at country clubs. And as with everything that becomes “black” - there became a de-emphasis in keeping up the pools. Pools began being shut down. And so defunding, degradation, and over-crowding became the norm for our city pools.
Deadly Consequences of Racism.
Currently, “municipal pools are being closed down at an alarming rate and they're not being replaced by new pools. And so relatively poor people, especially people living in large inner cities, have much less access to swimming pools than Americans have at any time during the last, say, hundred years.” - Jeff Wiltse, Racial History of America’s Swimming Pools
My younger siblings and I worked summers in public city pools. The staff was dedicated, the children amazing, and the community welcoming, but as with teaching in a public school, the allure of working in a private pool was there. Private pools paid more, had more guards (which means longer breaks and more eyes on the children), had pool snacks, and gave the option of getting paid more to teach swim lessons or coach the swim team.
But here is the thing, although black children don’t receive swimming lessons, they still love water. The myth that black people don’t like getting in the water and, therefore, cannot swim is false. Now, there is an association between a parent having bad experiences with water being far more fearful and reluctant to let their children near water, which can keep them from swimming lessons. But when you have 64-70% of black children that can't swim compared to less than 40% of white children, the truth is far more painful: black children drown more.
Black children are three times more likely to drown than their white peers.
Importance of Swim Lessons.
Most children, especially males (80% of drowning deaths), regardless of race/ethnicity/intelligence/nationality, will hop in a pool unattended and without floating devices, if given the opportunity.
This is why drowning is the top five cause of death for children ages 1-14 in 48/54 countries. According to The World's Largest Swimming Lessons, for every one drowning in the US, there are another five that receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries. But black males have an additional water threat, not seen in Native Americans or white people, they are more likely to die of drowning in between the ages of 15-19 years of age.
"In fact, in swimming pools, African American children ages 5-19 die at rates 5.5 times higher than those of whites. The CDC notes that the disparity is most stark among kids ages 11-12. In that age group, African Americans are 10 times more likely to drown than their white counterparts."- Byron McCauley, Cincinnati Enquirer
*Now, swim lessons cannot prevent drowning, especially those in open forms of water (i.e., lake, ocean, pond, etc.). In open water, there are boat accidents, rescue missions that go awry, deadly currents, and unexpectant depth. Natural water is beautiful and terrific but can be fatal for the strongest swimmers. But when looking at swimming pool deaths, swimming lessons can significantly reduce the incidence of drowning.
For the following steps, I went to my sister. As an aquatics manager, she has been a lifeguard for years, a competitive swimmer, and a swim teacher.
Norma Renee's tips for swimming safety:
Saving someone that is drowning:
When there are no lifeguards on duty, you save a person, even if you can't swim, by getting a towel, noodle, or long pole to extend to the person if they are close enough to help pull them in. Make sure that you anchor yourself, likely by laying on your stomach.
Second, if you cannot reach the person, call for help and throw them something that they can hang on to that floats. If you are a strong swimmer and hop in, anchor yourself to the side of the pool, and keep the flotation device between you and the victim. Allow them to grab on the flotation device - not your person.
Jumping in is the LAST option (unless it's a small child).
Some tips to help children swim: Renee used (and taught us to use) these tips to help my oldest son become an excellent swimmer.
1. Have the child hold on to your shoulders and have the child kick while holding up their stomach or hips to give them stability.
2. Hold on to the child on their side, where their arms and legs are free. Throw a toy that can float and have the child kick their feet and stretch their arms towards the toy. (This will make the kid comfortable in the water and teach them how to kick and move their arms correctly.)
3. To teach your kid how to blow bubbles - tell them to close their mouth and blow out like in a tissue.
Y'all I had to save my baby boy from a drowning incident, while at a crowded apartment pool with plenty of friends. It took two seconds for Mike and me to lose sight of him. At a very young age, I hopped in to save my little brother from drowning at a family friend's pool - we were both drowning until my father dove in with all his clothes. Drowning is not a reflection of parenting. We all look away or are distracted, but as soon as you don't see your child: CHECK THE POOL. And y'all swimming pools are where the village mentality peaks - try to be aware of all the children in the pool.
When my son went under, a woman witnessed it from a top floor. She left her two children in the apartment to run to the pool to let me know. We passed one another in the hall. I was crying and carrying my fully alert baby - she was running to the swimming pool. She literally just embraced me, knowing what I just experienced. She let me know that it was an easy mistake to make. It was a beyond kind gesture. Thank God for good people.