There’s Nothing Funny About 70 Percent of Black Americans Not Knowing How to Swim

A YMCA initiative seeks to expand access to water safety and swimming lessons.

(Photo: Lori Adamski Peek/Getty Images)

Jun 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

Summertime means barbecues, long sunny days, and cool dips in the nearest body of water. But for many Americans, swimming can quickly move from innocent summer fun to life-ending tragedy. With this in mind, the YMCA has embarked on an ambitious nationwide program that aims to teach thousands of kids how to stay safe.

“Swimming is a life skill,” says Janet Wright, the YMCA’s Safety Around Water national spokesperson and aquatics director at the organization’s North Philadelphia branch. “The Y has taken a national stand to talk about water safety and make sure everyone knows and understands that this is important, and it’s something that will help you for the rest of your life.”

The Safety Around Water program consists of eight 40-minute lessons that teach kids how to “jump, push, turn, grab, and swim, float, swim” if they ever find themselves in a pool, river, or lake. The program also makes sure kids learn two cardinal rules: Never swim alone, and never swim without a lifeguard present.

“We’re really trying to give them information about being safe,” Wright says. Her goal? To say to kids, “Don’t even put yourself in [an unsafe] situation because you don’t even know what can happen.”

So, Why Should You Care? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 people die from unintentional drowning every single day, and for black children the chances of drowning are “significantly higher than those for whites and Hispanics at every age from five years through 18.” While the risk of unintentional drowning persists throughout childhood, the age when black kids are most vulnerable is 10.

Even when children follow Wright’s main rules—never swim alone or unattended—bad things can happen.

On Monday, a black teenager, 14-year-old Brionne Sloan, almost became another unintentional drowning victim when he sank to the bottom of a public pool in DeKalb County, Georgia. Another swimmer was able to pull him up, but what happened next shocked everyone. Although there were lifeguards, who were also black, on duty at the pool, Browns Mill Family Aquatic Center, none of them could allegedly swim in deep water or do CPR, something Sloan desperately needed.

“I saw three of the workers walking away, shaking their heads,” Sloan’s mother, Melissa, told a local news station, explaining that her son was unconscious, “completely blue,” and not moving.

The teen was rushed to a local hospital, where he remained in the ICU for several days before doctors were able to wean him off the ventilator and allow him to breathe on his own. He is lucky, as he doesn’t seem to have experienced any brain damage.

Sloan’s ordeal is not unique. In 2010, six black teenagers from two families drowned in Shreveport, Louisianas Red River while trying to save a friend. Sadly, the teens’ friends and family, who watched in horror as they drowned, couldn't save them—they couldn’t swim either.

While it’s often said jokingly that black folks don’t swim, that they drown at such an alarming rate is no laughing matter. It isn't just because black people hate the water. Though 70 percent of black folks can’t swim, lack of access to public pools and a history of segregated swimming have kept many of them out of the water.

RELATED: Im Black—My Dad Taught Me to Swim as an Act of Political Resistance

“African Americans were not allowed to swim in the 40s or ’50s, so if your grandparents didn’t know how to swim, then they didn’t teach your parents, and if your parents didn’t swim, then you might not be a swimmer,” Wright says. “So now it’s just about changing the mind-set at this point.”

The YMCA is hoping its water safety program will help. In addition to making sure young people don’t become drowning victims, the organization also hopes to get more kids of color into the pool. To further this aim, it is hoping to reach as many young people as possible by providing 13,000 scholarships for kids in low-income communities to participate in the class. It’s something the Y hopes both parents and kids will participate in.

“Please just come,” Wright says of the program. “I really can’t stress it enough.”