Race, Fear and the Risk of Drowning

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The public pool in Astoria Park.

Photo by: Global Jet

The public pool in Astoria Park.

As the weather heats up so does the concern for water safety around pools and waterfronts. On Monday, Brooklyn's borough president reminded parents to supervise their children closely after Ruhshona Kurbonova, a two-year-old, drowned in Prospect Park Lake this past weekend.

“A city that is surrounded by a body of water shouldn’t lose human bodies to swimming incidents or water-related incidents,” said Eric Adams.

To prevent further drowning occurrences, Adams plans to sit down with all stakeholders to get across the importance of water safety for all citizens and also he expressed the need to get the word out to parents on educating their children on what not to do when near water. Adams's goal is to prevent “family gatherings turning into family tragedy.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the past year, 3,533 non-boating related drownings occurred in the United States; that's 10 people per day. While the circumstances of each water accident are different, a lack of swimming ability and water-safety knowledge is a common factor.

The ability to survive in the water is shaded by race. The USA Swimming Foundation quotes a University of Memphis' study that found 70 percent of black children cannot swim. Nearly 60 percent of Latino children cannot swim, compared with 40 percent of whites. Black kids drown at a rate of three times higher than white children. In pools, new research indicates, the disparity leaps to 5.5 times. Among adults, the racial disparities ebb.

Scholars say that past discrimination—from prohibitions on blacks using pools to fake science that posited the existence of biological inferiorities among non-whites—underlies the disparate risks faced in the water. But some research suggests that the problem now feeds on itself: Surveys have found that the major reason parents don't get their kids to learn how to swim is not access to lessons or pools but fear of the water.

Shawn Slevin, a confounder of the Swim Strong Foundation, sees a need for schools to start talking to their students about water-related matters and also to teach parents to talk to their child about not swimming after dark or without a lifeguard. “It only takes two feet of water and two minutes to drown,” says Slevin. If a child learns at a young age about water safety, much like learning not to talk to strangers, they will be more prepared the next time they are put in a situation where drowning is a risk.

According to CDC data from 2010, the last year for which extensive statistics are available, New York State lost 156 people to accidental drownings, the highest number in the Empire State in at least 12 years. But over the entire 1999-2010 period, New York's rate of drowning deaths was the lowest among the states, at 0.6 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 3.9 deaths per 100,000 in Alaska.

-with reporting by Jarrett Murphy

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