How to Tackle Racial Inequality in the Water - Pacific Standard

How to Tackle Racial Inequality in the Water

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Olympian Simone Manuel’s achievements are a sign that recent initiatives to get kids swimming may be working.

By Francie Diep

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Simone Manuel competing at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images)

Last week, Simone Manuel became the first female, African-American swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal. She went on to win another gold, along with two silver medals. Her achievements have sparked a lot of conversation about swimming among minority Americans.

In 2014, only about 1 percent of members of American swimming’s governing body, U.S.A. Swimming, who disclosed their race identified as African American or black. Surveys havefound African-American and Hispanic kids and adults are less likely to know how to swim at all, compared to white Americans, due in part to a legacy of segregation at pools and beaches.

In 2014, only about 1 percent of members of American swimming’s governing body, U.S.A. Swimming, who disclosed their race identified as African American or black.

In Pacific Standard’s March/April issue, James McWilliamsreported on America’s (and humanity in general’s) struggle to preventaccidental drowning, which is the fifth-leading cause of “unintentional injury death in the United States” and the second-leading cause of death for American children under the age of 15. This lack of swimming skills may be part of the reason why Hispanic and African-American kids and young adults are more likely than whites to drown, a disparity that’s especially pronounced in swimming pools. Several recent projects are working to prevent those deaths.

McWilliams reports on an initiative in Washington state that hopes to get public pools to allow people to wear street clothes in the water. “The reason is that certain cultural groups habitually swim in shorts and T-shirts rather than swimsuits,” he writes. “If turned away from a public pool on sartorial grounds, these groups are likely to seek open-water alternatives — waters with dangerous swells and currents and no lifeguard supervision.”

Otherprojectsthat have arisen as Manuel was training for Rio include free swim lessons and meets and public-awareness campaigns. Those campaigns may finally be starting to take effect. “I remember when it was just Maritza [Correia] and Sabir [Muhammad] and me, we always talked about it,” Cullen Jones, the second African-American swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, told the Washington Post in 2015. Maritza Correia, a Puerto Rican of African descent, was the first to set a world record and Sabir Muhammad broke 10 American records a more than a decade ago.

“We wanted to see more kids coming up and now we’re seeing it,” said Jones, who nabbed his medal in 2008. “It’s awesome. It’s been slow, but it’s coming.”

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