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Taylor Marcoly

Dr. Bruce
ENGL 301
T/Th 11:30
Water Safety and African Americans
On August 2, 2010 six African American teenagers were standing in the shallow
waters of the Red River in Louisiana when they stumbled upon a large sinkhole and
slowly began to drown (NBC News, 2010). Standing nearby on the shores of the river,
the teenagers families stood watching as they drowned because no one in their families
had learned how to swim (NBC News, 2010). Although this was a tragic accident
resulting in the loss of six young lives this type of accident is more common than you
may think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection or CDC,
[d]rowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the
United States (2012). Following the deaths of the six Louisiana teenagers the CDC and
other researchers analyzed all incidents of accidental drowning beginning from 2005 to
2009 in the United States and came to the startling conclusion that minority groups had a
significantly higher rate of accidental drowning when compared to the rates of whites
(Laosee, Gilchrist, & Rudd, 2012). But what are the factors that contribute to a higher
rate of drowning among minorities and what measures can be taken to be prevent this
form of accidental death? Regardless of income or background, minority groups should
have equal opportunity to learn how to swim because it is a useful life-saving skill that
can be used to prevent future accidental drownings and the lives of many victims.
In order to identify why there is a disparity between the drowning rates of
minorities and whites we must consider the various environmental and cultural factors
that may have some effect on their swimming capabilities. Even though it is difficult to
justify one single factor as the cause of this statistic, [there are] over 40 potential
variables that might constitute factors relating to the disproportionately high minority
drowning rates (Martin & Witman, 2010, p. 10). Further research conducted by
Martin and Whitman in a review article for the International Journal of Aquatic Research
& Education, led to their conclusion that there are six primary factors that affect the
drowning rates of minorities which, included: age, sex, and location (Brenner, Trumble,
Smith, Kessler, & Overpeck, 2001), access (Hastings et al., 2006), supervision (Landen,
Bauer, & Kohn, 2003), swimming lessons (2010, p. 11). Since most research supports
the claim that Hispanics and Asians have similar drowning rates to those of whites, this
argument will primarily focus on the drowning rate discrepancy between blacks and
whites to demonstrate how large the drowning gap is between these two groups (Saluja et
al., 2006, p. 729).
One of the primary factors that could affect the drowning rates is the age at which
the drowning occurs because it gives us some insight about the swimming habits of
various races and the ages to which most children learn to swim. One study in Pediatrics,
found that for the age group of one to four year olds white children had a higher rate of
accidental drowning than all other races (Brenner, Trumble, Smith, Kessler, & Overpeck,
2001, p. 87). However in the age group of five to ten year olds this trend reverses and,
drowning rates [become] significantly higher among black males compared with white
males(Brenner et al, 2001, p. 87). It is hypothesized that the reason why more white
children tend to drown at younger ages is because they are more likely to have access to
private swimming pools and begin to learn how to swim at younger ages compared to
African Americans (Saluja, et al., 2006, p. 731).
Another factor being used to determine why there is a gap between African
American and white drowning rates is the victims sex. In a study conducted for the CDC
it was discovered that males regardless of race had drowning rates, nearly four times
that for females (Laosee et al., 2012). The higher drowning rates of males is linked to
their behavior and how, [m]en probably overestimate their swimming ability and
drink more alcohol than women on or near the water (Howland, Hingson, Mangione,
Bell, & Bak, 1996, p. 96). There is some disagreement among scholars over whether
there is enough research to claim that both sex and race can be attributed to the drowning
rate or if there are other factors in effect (Martin & Whitman, 2010, p. 14). Martin and
Whitman believe that additional research is required to definitively prove the relationship
between sex and race and to determine why male minorities, especially African
Americans drown at higher rates than whites males (2010, p. 14).
Probably one of the largest factors that could affect the drowning rate
discrepancies between blacks and whites is the location where the drowning occurs. In a
study conducted by the University of Maryland it found that the locations of these
African American drownings happened mostly in public pools and are attributable to
an increased risk of drowning in a pool that was accessible to the public rather than a
private residential pool [and] are inherently less safe, ie, with more crowded conditions
and/ or poor supervision (Brenner et al., 2001, p. 88). Upon further analysis this study
shows that [d]rowning rates in freshwater were comparable for black and white males
conversely, rate of drowning in swimming pools were much higher among black males
than white males (Brenner et al., 2001, p. 87). In freshwater environments there are
more external factors affecting swimming conditions and abilities, but these statistics do
not reflect that. In fact these statistics shows that there are other factors affecting the
drowning rate, because logically in a freshwater environment African Americans would
still have higher rates of drowning than whites. However once again there has been little
research conducted to explain the relationship between race and drowning locations, but
it has been, suggested that, examining cultural factors and their definitions may be
important for addressing drowning prevention efforts in different geographical locations
and cultures (Martin & Whitman, 2010, p. 14-15).
One proposed factor that could affect the drowning rates of African Americans is
the lack of access to supervised and safe swimming areas. According to a study
conducted in the Journal of Black Studies, African Americans have limited access to safe
and supervised swimming areas due to low-income status (Hastings, Zahran, & Cable,
2006, p. 899). Wealthier status groups [primarily whites] that have access to a well-
developed swimming infrastructure and are not restricted from participation by the
principle of social exclusivityhave fewer numbers of unintentional drowning
(accidental drowning and submersion) than those status groupings that do not participate
like African Americans (Hastings, Zahran, & Cable, 2006, p. 899). This lack of
accessibility to swimming areas could affect the age at which a child learns to swim and
the availability of proper swimming lessons. It should not be surprising that a group of
people who lack access to swimming pools or other sources for swimming will not have
the opportunity to learn and thus have higher rates of accidental drowning.
Accessibility to various swimming environments may also have an effect on the
level of supervision available and thus affect the drowning rate. Supervision of swimmers
should not be the sole responsibility of parents and friends, but of the public as a whole
[to] watch over people participating in aquatic activity and thereby ensure that they are
safe and acceptably behaved (Dean & Whitman, 2010, p. 12). However it would be
difficult to enforce the publics role in preventing drownings, but through proper
education and supervision the public could have an influential role in drowning
prevention. There has been little research conducted on the subject of swimming
supervision with a focus on race, but the results of one study found that Louisiana
blacks were more likely during swimming activities to have less or a total lack of
supervision than other races that lead to accidental drownings (Landen, Bauer, & Kohn,
2006, p. 331).
While there may be little evidence to support the relationship between African
Americans and their supervision rates there is plenty of research supporting the role of
swimming lessons in drowning rates. Some studies have indicated that, nearly 70% of
black youngsters between the ages of six and 16 have "low or no" swimming skills-
almost twice the figure for whites (Lawrence, 2010). In a 2009 study it was estimated
that with proper swimming lesson children ages 1 to 4 had a significantly (88%) lower
risk of drowning (Brenner et al., 2009, p. 203). Many scholars and organizations
including the American Academy of Pediatrics believed that formal swimming lessons
for one to four years old would in fact not prevent incidents of accidental drowning,
because there was little evidence that lessons prevented drowning or resulted in better
swim skills ,but new research has shown that introducing young children to
swimming can be beneficial in preventing future drownings (American Academy of
Pediatrics, n.d.).
While there is some doubt over whether these factors are the primary causes of
the difference in drowning rates between blacks and whites, others believe it is due to the
cultural differences of some African Americans. Dr. Kevin Dawson, a professor from the
University of California, Merced, believes that differences in drowning rates stem from
the reluctance of some African Americans to learn how to swim because of social stigmas
and cultural fears about swimming (2006, p. 1354). These fears and social stigmas limit
some African Americans drive to learn how to swim and as a result their children do not
learn how to swim as well (2006, p. 1355). Dr. Dawson outlines the history of swimming
among Africans and how they were once considered excellent swimmers in comparison
to Europeans during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (2006, p. 1331). If Africans
were originally know for the prowess and speed in the water what has changed in their
habits over the last several hundreds of years that has led to a drowning rate gap between
blacks and whites? Upon enslavement by Europeans, many of these Africans took there
swimming skills with to North and South America and were often used for these skills as
fishermen (Dawson, 2006, p. 1339). During their enslavement Africans continued to
swim recreationally with most, learn[ing] to swim young, perhaps between four and six
years of age (Dawson, 2006, p. 1339). However as swimming became more socially
acceptable for Europeans, whites slowly began to limit African American swimming
habits (Dawson, 2006, p. 1345). Dr. Dawson believes that the decline in black swimming
is in part a result of the social stigma that swimming is a white activity and placed
some of the blame on the lack of initiative by African Americans to learn how to swim
because they are physically just as capable as any other race (2006, p. 1355). Dr. Dawson
brings up an excellent point about social stigmas limiting African American swimming
participation, but even if they had the drive to learn how to swim wouldnt the factors
mentioned earlier (age, sex, location, access, etc.) also limit their opportunity to learn
how to swim and thus result in higher drowning rates than whites?
These factors outline many of the points of debate among scholars over the
drowning rate gap between African Americans and whites, but it can also help set
guidelines to prevent more accidental drownings from occurring. From the factors
discussed it would seem that the best course of action to prevent future accidental
drownings is to learn how to swim at a young age, swim in areas with ample supervision
and in a safe location, make swimming lessons and pools easily accessible for people of
all socioeconomic backgrounds, and to phase out social stigmas surrounding swimming.
The only way to prevent this trend of African Americans having higher drowning rates
than other races is to give them an equal opportunity to learn how to swim, even if they
may lack the resources. In addition to these preventative measures, there are several
safety precautions aimed at both adults and children to ensure swimming is a safe and
enjoyable activity for everyone. According to the American Red Cross there are several
safety guidelines that can be used to prevent accidents near or in water and include
building proper fences at least four feet tall around all pools, having adults monitor
children at all times anytime they are near water, and proper education in emergency
response techniques like CPR and first aid (n.d.). If small measures are taken in response
to these findings that African Americans lack the proper skills and setting to learn how to
swim, then slowly some progress can be made in reversing this trend of higher drowning

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