This stereotype is killing black children
The Sycamore Club Pool in Bowie in 2006. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
The Washington Post by Ebony Rosemond February 10
While police killings of black people sometimes attract front-page attention, black lives lost due to drowning are largely ignored.
In wealthy, majority-black Prince George’s County, not a single elementary, middle or high school has a pool. Nevertheless, Sean Barbour, a recent DeMatha High School graduate, broke records as a member of the Theresa Banks Swim Club’s 200-medley relay team and is now a freshman at La Salle University. Absalom Bolling, a student at the new all-boys Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Northeast Washington, is ranked 18th in the 200-meter butterfly in Potomac Valley Swimming — one of the nation’s most competitive swimming groups. Barbour, Bolling and other black swimmers earn scholarships to private high schools and universities.
But what is normal in the Washington suburbs is a rarity in neighborhoods across the United States. More commonly, a black child will be the only one on a team of more than 100 swimmers, like Sydney Hearn, who swims for the Sylvania Tsunami Swim Club in Ohio. USA Swimming, the nation’s organizing body for the sport, has some 337,000 members — of whom only 1.3 percent are black.
Today, nearly 60 years after the abolishment of Jim Crow laws that kept African Americans from pools and safe swimming places, many children still never get the chance to swim. Municipalities often favor cheap splash parks over pools in black neighborhoods, but no one learns how to avoid drowning in a splash park. The historic separation of African Americans from pools is a problem that affects the elite world of competitive swimming. Despite Simone Manuel’s Olympic gold-medal success last summer, only three of 45 swimmers on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team were black. And out of 107 historically black colleges and universities, not one has a functioning 50-meter pool. Howard University is the only HBCU with a competitive swim team. With few role models and scarce opportunities to swim, too many black children see swimming as an inaccessible and uninviting sport.
An inability to swim bars black children from being qualified for a variety of summer employment and career opportunities, ranging from lifeguards and camp counselors to collegiate coaches and directors of aquatics for municipalities.
Stereotypes suggest black people don’t want to swim because they can’t float, are scared of water and will do anything to avoid getting their hair wet. These widely held negative stereotypes are literally killing us. 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.
Weeks before African American swimmers Manuel, Lia Neal and Anthony Ervin won Olympic medals, a Red Cross poster “Be Cool, Follow the Rules ” depicted white children “following” the rules in a swimming pool while black children broke the rules. My group, Black Kids Swim, objected to the imbalanced portrayal on social media and the poster went viral. The Red Cross has since apologized to donors and asked various groups to take down the poster. This poster reinforced the long-standing idea that black people are still not welcome in swimming pools.
The Red Cross teaches millions of Americans how to swim. Yet, today, 70 percent of African Americans lack basic swimming skills. Additionally, the Red Cross’s Centennial Campaign, charged with training 50,000 new swimmers in areas with some of the nation’s highest drowning rates, does not record the race of participants. How can the Red Cross be serious about reducing drowning rates in the black community if it is not holding itself accountable?
The black community must focus on getting more of its children in the water. Black Kids Swim was founded in 2015 to do just that. We offer information and support to help parents and children overcome what has kept black people from swimming — telling parents how to get their kids on a swim team and answering questions about a sport that has had few role models for black children. As our community grows, we plan to sponsor kids to take classes and join swim clubs.
We should not continue to lose our lives because we can’t swim.
Ebony Rosemond is the founder of Black Kids Swim.
Swimmer Simone Manuel poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 7, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.