Stark statistics underlie the initiative by the national governing body for swimming. Black children drown at a rate almost three times the overall rate. And less than 2 percent of USA Swimming’s nearly 252,000 members who swim competitively year-round are black.
USA Swimming is teaming with an array of partners—local governments, corporations, youth and ethnic organizations—to expand learn-to-swim programs across the United States, many of them targeted at inner-city minorities. One of the key participants is black freestyle star Cullen Jones, who hopes to boost his role-model status by winning a medal this summer at the Beijing Olympics.
Study surveyed nearly 1,800 children
As part of the initiative, USA Swimming commissioned an ambitious study recently completed by five experts at the University of Memphis’ Department of Health and Sports Sciences. They surveyed 1,772 children aged 6 to 16 in six cities—two-thirds of them black or Hispanic—to gauge what factors contributed most to the minority swimming gap.
The study found that 31 percent of the white respondents could not swim safely, compared to 58 percent of the blacks. The non-swimming rate for Hispanic children was almost as high—56 percent—although more than twice as many Hispanics as blacks are now USA Swimming members.
The lead researcher, Professor Richard Irwin, said one key finding was the influence of parents’ attitudes and abilities. If a parent could not swim, as was far more likely in minority families than white families, or if the parent felt swimming was dangerous, then the child was far less likely to learn how to swim.
Disparity has a long history
The minority swimming gap has deep roots in America’s racial history. For decades during the 20th century, many pools were segregated, and relatively few were built to serve black communities.
John Cruzat, USA Swimming’s diversity specialist, said these inequalities were compounded by a widespread misperception—fueled by flawed academic studies—that blacks’ swimming ability was compromised by an innate deficit of buoyancy.