Open Phones: African-Americans and Swimming

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lia Neal swimming at the Olympic trials. (Mike Comer / ProSwim Visuals)

As we watch the U.S. Olympic swimming team, which includes a record three swimmers with African-American roots, we wanted to explore the still low number of African-American youth who learn to swim. According to a 2010 study, about 70% of African-American youth have little or no swimming ability as compared to about 40% of white youth.  

So we want to hear from our African-American listeners: Call us and tell us why you think a high percentage of African-American kids don't learn to swim, whether you're making a point of learning to swim or making sure your children learn to swim, and if you or your children are inspired by the Olympic athletes. Call us at 212-433-9692 or comment here. 

Joining us to discuss are journalist Tetsuhiko Endo and the executive director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA Dordy Jourdain

Comments [39]

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Sep. 04 2012 08:02 AM
Calls'em from Back from the beach in VA

@ Paul and other city slickers... isn't NYC surrounded by water? Doesn't the NYC metro area have some of the best public beaches in the world, mostly built by Robert Moses, that evil white man who built thousands of playgrounds, pools and improved beaches. Millions of people in NYC can walk to a beach let alone take a car, train, bus or bike. The left argues and complains about their limitations and that's why they have been so limited. Everyone is a victim and they all need a marxist state to help them. So sad.

Aug. 01 2012 01:06 AM
gownna from gowanus

come to red hook, it's predominantly black and hispanic with some white people here and there. and the adult swim lessons in the late afternoons/evenings - all black youngsters learning to swim. i wish wnyc would report on FACTS before jumping to some stereotype of black people not swimming. Urban black ppl below a certain age are doing just fine in the waters. just like they're doing just fine with certain technological advancements. it's about age, not race.

Jul. 31 2012 05:08 PM
Jon from Manhattan

Keep in mind that City owned pools have had their depth modified to make it nearly impossible to teach swimming skills to all but toddlers. Moreover, the people that run City pools make it extremely difficult if not impossible for outside organizations to come to a City pool and initiate a swimming program.

HughSansom: African-Americans drown at a higher rate because it is less likely that someone with water safety skills is present when a person is drowning.

Jul. 31 2012 04:49 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Here is something I learned about in 1999 on my visit to the SF Bay area.

Sutro Baths

"The Sutro Baths were a large, privately owned swimming pool complex in San Francisco, California, built in the late 19th century. The building housing the baths burned down in 1966 and was abandoned. The ruins may still be visited."

Getting back to NYC, I think people are scared to go to a NYC Public pool because of the crime. Just a few weeks ago some "youth" attacked a lifeguard.

Also 2/3 years ago I went to the Coney Island Mermaid parade. The after parade crowd on the boardwalk was as crowded as the subway during Rush Hour. I heard some kids screaming. Saw a kid running. Turns out that some other kid was stabbed, on CI beach. The kid running away, the kids screaming and the stabbed kid were all "urban". Pretty sad.

Jul. 31 2012 01:24 PM
Melon from Sarasota, FL

The reasons so many blacks don't swim are twofold: one is that their parents didn't know how to swim and therefore often didn't/don't take their kids to learn. The other is that when the parents tried to learn as adults, if there was an opportunity, there was no program that could teach them how to overcome their fear of water which MUST happen before people learn swimming mechanics.

Traditional lessons do not work (or very rarely work) for people who are afraid. There is a specific skill set for learning how to remain in control in water that is not part of the curriculum of any traditional lessons program. Without it, afraid adults have a very low chance of learning to be safe in deep water, which is what learning to swim means.

Swim For Life is only good enough when kids complete the learning sequence of becoming able to take care of themselves in deep water. Until they have learned that, they should not be named, "Able to swim." Swimming strokes are NOT necessary for becoming safe in deep water.

When people say adults have learned to swim, you must ask, "Do you mean they learned to stroke across the pool, or to hang out for 10 minutes calmly in deep water?"

Jul. 31 2012 01:09 PM

Grew up on swim teams in NorCal, where passing a swim test was req'd in our county to graduate high school. Black kids didn't do as well in swimming because the access was restricted by geography. IT STILL IS! Jim Crow works in all kind of ways... But now there are recruitment programs, and black kids are kicking some ass in the pool! Black pool power! Have you seen the UCB swim team of late? Growing black presence, we're thrilled they've come aboard.

God bless Olympic swimmer Lia Neal - African American and Chinese-Am. Good kid, great parents.

Jul. 31 2012 12:41 PM
Murbeth from CT

How fortunate are all those people and their comments re: how easy it is to learn to swim and any reason not to is just an excuse. Happy is the VA resident who claims any can swim anywhere. I have been to VA and never was able to find a place to swim. A female friend of about 30 years ago was awarded a swimming scholarship to Yale. She finally had to give up the scholarship because they never allowed her the time to take care of her hair - which is quite a problem despite the comments of those who think that is "silly". Many disabled persons have black care takers who get the handicapped person to the pool but never go in the water - because they never had the luxury of learning about water as a child or teen and are convinced that the water is cold. In CT you pay to use a town pool, school pool, or pay for a beach/lake pass or pay for a health club, JCC, YMCA, live in a gated community that has a pool. I understand because all the beaches, pools, etc. were closed during my childhood because of polio. I learned to swim when I was about 30 and now pay for it but swim year round 4 days a week. Not understanding the lack of swimming opportunity for young blacks is the same as not understanding poverty and food stamps.

Jul. 31 2012 12:25 PM
Paul from Queens

"There were always places for Black people to swim, if they had been so inclined."

No there haven't been! Here in NYC, many pools in black neighborhoods have been closed for years. Marcy Pool in Bed-Stuy closed many years ago because of decay and lack of funding. The pool at Queensbridge Houses was shut down 20 years ago and never reopened because raw sewage seeped into the pool. There's a pool in Brownsville that just closed for rehabbing and is "expected" to reopen in 2013 (but knowing the City of NY it'll be longer than that). My old pool at PS 20 in Clinton Hill - albeit rehabbed - has opened for years because there is no funding for its staffing and maintenance. McCarren Pool in Williamsburg just reopened after 25 years of closure - and IMO that reopening had to do with the fact that the neighborhood gentrified.

Jul. 31 2012 12:18 PM

I was surprised to hear "the hair issue" mentioned but essentially glossed over by your guest. I grew up in Washington Heights in the 1950s and I can tell you that, for black women, the hair issue was the main reason they often kept their heads above water, or avoided swimming altogether. Colonial Pool in Harlem and Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights were filled to the rafters with black and Hispanic kids in the summer, and both had their share of black and Hispanic lifeguards. I remember plenty of black boys who were competent swimmers and enjoyed the water. But black women were less likely to pursue swimming because it would mean having to appear in public afterwards with nappy hair -- and no one would dream of doing that until the late 1960s. By then, of course, the habit of avoiding the water was already firmly entrenched in the black community. There was also the dense bones myth but that was a lot less of a reason than having to worry about your hair "going back". So it's not so much black PEOPLE who don't swim as much as whites do; it's black WOMEN.

Jul. 31 2012 12:17 PM

Oh,yes: During the time I lived in Milwaukee, the pools near the edge of the Inner City (think mostly black) increasingly became used less and less by whites as the numbers of blacks swimming there went up.

As time went by, pools became less of a priority for taxpayer support.

That, alas, is a racial issue, but not caused by any innate lack of interest by blacks in swimming or leanring to swim.

Jul. 31 2012 12:04 PM
Calls'em from At the beach in VA.

What a racist and ignorant segment. Most people of all walks of life and all backgrounds learned to swim by watching others and then jumping in the water and paddling around. We are surrounded and blessed by rivers, lakes and oceans - all free – just jump in. Black people may have been denied access to private and public pools 40 or 50 years ago, but this discussion is completely asinine. There were always places for Black people to swim, if they had been so inclined. It's all about what parents expose their kids to. What's next, mandatory curling? This program and station does everything to push the leftist agenda where white people are bad and the state has to build expensive things and spend massive amounts of taxpayer money to take care of the poor mistreated people. You forgot to remind people to vote for Barry 0bama, because he will build a swimming people for everyone, but only if he gets re-elected. Lol.

Jul. 31 2012 12:03 PM
Laura from Brooklyn

I'd love to learn how to swim, but its hard to find an adult swimming class. All the classes I see at the YMCA for beginners swim are for kids or the elderly.

Jul. 31 2012 12:02 PM

I grew up in the country in WI and learned to swim from my father, swimming in lakes, sometimes safe areas of rivers.

I moved to Milwaukee and greatly enjoyed both the summertime free pools and the natatoriums in cooler weather built for those without access to easy bathing facilities in their homes, mostly recent immigrants and the poor). The natatoriums are now gone, alas, supposedly replaced by mega-pools, but much father away and less accessible to the Inner City.

When I moved to Norther Suboonia, NJ, I found out about township pools which were restricted to residents only, private community lakes (!) available only to residents or those who paid rather costly membership fees for the summer. I think there's swimming at a county park, for a rathre pricey cost for, oh, a half hour swim. Plus it's a longish drive, also now costly.

I haven't yet found a place to swim regularly -- and can't afford a Y membership, so just don't do any swimming.

In this state, it seems, swimming is a upper middle class to stretched middle class recreation and exercise.

Swimming is a CLASS exercise. Unless one lives in a town or county which makes pools a communitarian project.

It comes down to MONEY.

Jul. 31 2012 12:01 PM

How are kids going to lean to swim in local pools if the parks department dont allow floatation devices such as "floaties" or "kick boards" in the pool ?
It's absurd.

Jul. 31 2012 12:00 PM
The Truth from Becky

City versus Country access to the ocean perhaps, Inland versus on the coast, maybe but, I can't get behind this race based non-sense annd puhleese don't get on here with the "hair" ignorance, hello? swim caps! utter non-sense!

Jul. 31 2012 11:58 AM
Stuart Waldman from Manhattan

The biggest to swimming is fear, especially as an adult, and the older you learn the more the fear is embedded. I'm 71 and couldn't swim until last year, when I found a teacher who has a degree in psychology. He treated the phobia along with swim technique. I had tried many other teachers who just didn't have a clue to the role of fear.

Jul. 31 2012 11:58 AM
Mary from UWS

It's a shame that everyone doesn't have access to learn how to swim. It's a survival skill, not just an athletic achievement. Too many people drown because they are afraid of water or never learned how to swim. You don't have to learn in order to be competitive, just how to survive if God forbid find yourself in such a situation. And in NYC we are surrounded by water - we should all know how to swim.

Jul. 31 2012 11:58 AM
Bonn from East Village

How crazy is that to tell kids (and adults) they can't excel. It's a matter of exposure. I'm white and learned to swim properly when I was in my 40s. I was lucky to find a course for people who were afraid of the water. Now you should see me!

Jul. 31 2012 11:57 AM
Pablo Alto

Hate to say this, but I have "Negative Buoyancy". My muscle and bone density is such that I do now float. I can stand on the bottom of any pool. Freaked out my Water Safety Instructor teacher when I was learning to be a lifeguard.

Jul. 31 2012 11:57 AM
Knackered from Sanity

I think ur beating a dead horse on the "blacks don't swim" narrative in the USA. its a foregone conclusion that blacks (or any dominated group of peoples per any region on earth, including diverse breeds of whites) will/can/did not/never/ever have access to luxuries like pools and beaches. its tantamount to rubbing it in, especially when its discussed out of context of the Tyranny which beget it. And daring to suggest its "genetic or physical" is adding insult to injury ... #boring

Jul. 31 2012 11:56 AM
Rachel Mauro

I recently heard about this wonderful organization, The Trident Swim Foundation, a NYC based non-profit that is having a fundraiser this evening

Jul. 31 2012 11:55 AM
johnleemedia from UWS

Sure you will mention the notorious 1987 comment by Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis: “Why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”

Jul. 31 2012 11:55 AM
John from nyc

Barack Obama growing up in Hawaii is a good swimmer and body surfer. What about his kids?

Jul. 31 2012 11:53 AM
Sherril from Morris Plains, NJ

Does anyone else remember reading or perhaps hearing on NPR that Blacks are sometimes loathe to swim because of hair and what the water does to it?

Jul. 31 2012 11:53 AM
Randi from Brooklyn

@Hugh: African American kids drown at three times the rate because many of those kids that do drown were swimming dangerously - they went out too far in the water, they swam in waters not protected by lifeguards, or they participated in "daredevil" swimming - many kids have drowned in the past from jumping off the Willis Ave. Bridge that connects the Bronx & Manhattan.

Jul. 31 2012 11:52 AM

This is a domestic cultural/political issue. Plenty of black folks swimming on the African continent and in the Caribbean.

Jul. 31 2012 11:52 AM
Caroline from Manhattan

Studies show that it it just as Brian suggests: when adults who had swimming lessons have kids, they are very likely to prioritize swimming lessons. Those who did not, are very unlikely to do so. Not having a history of having swimming lessons is the biggest factor here. I've been ranting about this issue for years now, because every summer there are tragedies and it is shameful.

New York City Parks and Rec has FREE lessons this summer!

Jul. 31 2012 11:51 AM

Great topic. I'm African American and I never learned how to swim. I'm well into adulthood now. My mother also doesn't swim and therefor couldn't teach me. It's pretty embarrassing to not know and my friends of other races are always in disbelief when I tell them. I am making it a point to learn before I have children and will make sure my children know as well. I'll be visiting the Bed Stuy Y soon!

Jul. 31 2012 11:51 AM
jennifer from Brooklyn, NY

Funny, I've never heard this stereotype in all my 37 years. Until now- and it will forever be lodged in that part of my brain where I relegate nonsense.

Don't you think acknowledging stereotypes often reinforces them?

Jul. 31 2012 11:50 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Or white men not wanting white women around scantily-clad black males...

Jul. 31 2012 11:49 AM
lcruz from brooklyn

ok, so b/c of laws/segregation in the 1920/30s kids in projects rockaway beach don't go in the water for a swim... really ?

Jul. 31 2012 11:48 AM
The Truth from Becky

I absolutely abhor these stereotypical discussions, you have not spoken to every Black American concerning these issues. Absolute nonsense!

Jul. 31 2012 11:48 AM
fuva from harlemworld

OH so many ripple effects of racist terror (pun intended).

Jul. 31 2012 11:47 AM
john from office

It would seem that the problem is parenting, where you plan and enter your child in a program, a YMCA or just the local pool. Do we really need a government program?

Jul. 31 2012 11:47 AM
fuva from harlemworld

How interesting that both black swimmers in the Olympics this year are local!

At issue with too low swim rate in the hood: Primarily, lack of faciltiies, access, instruction. But ALSO, mother-headed homes? Because it's often the mothers who -- squeamish because of "their hair" -- don't swim, and therefore don't present an example for the kids?

Jul. 31 2012 11:46 AM

Whoa! There is something disturbing in the figures Brian Lehrer just mentioned.

70% of African Americans don't learn to swim. 40% of white kids. Not quite a 2 to 1 ratio.

BUT African American kids _drown_ at THREE times the rate?! Why is that?

Jul. 31 2012 11:45 AM

What is pretty dismal for ALL kids (and adults) no matter what their skin color, is that somewhere between 40% and 70% do not know how to swim. Even if it's (only????) 40% - that's way too many Americans at risk.

Jul. 31 2012 10:58 AM

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