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Why do Black Kids Drown More Often than Whites?

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Kate Tuttle: Among parental fears, losing a child to a thoughtless, preventable accident has got to be at the top of the list. Every year, hundreds of children under 14 die of drowning -- and several hundred more survive but are left permanently disabled. Although there are always a few cases in which children drown in deep water or treacherous riptides, the majority of these drownings occur in swimming pools.

The summer swimming season is upon us, with pools open in most towns and children being shepherded to swim outings on a daily basis. Now, a new study (reported last week in the Wall Street Journal) has exposed some sad connections between race, income and drowning. Black children between the ages of 5 and 14, the study says, drowned at a rate three times that of white children in the years studied.

Although all children are at risk of drowning when they lack adequate supervision or are unskilled at swimming, kids of color and poor kids in general are several times more likely to find themselves in dangerous situations. The WSJ article details several reasons for this, citing budget cuts that 1) remove lifeguards from public pools, 2) abolish the opportunity to take swim lessons and/or 3) keep pools out of poor neighborhoods altogether, thereby ensuring that children in those areas never learn to swim -- and putting them in grave danger when their youth group has a beach or lake day.

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Sad as that is, it's at least somewhat intuitive (less access to pools means less swimming expertise means more danger. Got it). But the study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Memphis, also pointed to less obvious sources of the drowning gap. It turns out that generations of not swimming (caused, in the case of black children, by decades of Jim Crow-style segregation and discrimination in public pools) has left many black parents -- and indeed, poor parents of all races -- wary of allowing their children to go swimming or take lessons. The tragic irony, of course, is that swimming lessons offer protection against drowning -- they don't cause it.

Highlighting the role of racial prejudice in keeping black kids from the pool is the study's most painful contribution -- yet, I'd argue, it's its most useful. For while a lot of folks probably think that segregation went out of style in the '50s and '60s, many public swimming pools had unwritten rules keeping black kids out well into the '70s and beyond (even as recently as last year, a country club that had offered its pool facilities to a local youth group rescinded that offer after it turned out that the kids were black). It's this kind of story -- and the demonstrable, lingering aftereffects quantified by the University of Memphis study -- that draw a clear connection between racial discrimination and harm to innocent children. And that's a fact that ought to give us all pause as we pack our beach bags.

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For more on drowning dangers and how to help protect your loved ones, read the CDC fact sheet on water-related injuries.


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