In Minnesota, more Black people are dying from unintentional drowning compared to their white counterparts.
A 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that nationally, between 1999 and 2019, Black people ages 29 or younger died from unintentional drowning at 1.5 times the rate for white people in that age category.
In Minnesota, the disparity between Black and white people in drowning deaths is larger — and widening. Between 2005 and 2012, Black people ages 5 to 34 were 1.9 times more likely to die of unintentional drowning compared to white people. Between 2012 and 2020, the disparity grew, with Black people in that age category 2.3 times more likely to die by unintentional drowning than white people in Minnesota.
In the years that the CDC examined, racial/ethnic disparities in drowning, death rates did not significantly decline for most groups. And while in Minnesota drowning rates decreased for Black people, it did not decrease as much as it did for the white population, according to the Minnesota Department of Health – leaving disparities despite a decline in overall rates.
Increasing access to pools and swimming lessons could directly impact the drowning rates in the state and save a person’s life, said Alison Petri, the program manager for Abbey’s Hope Foundation, an organization that aims to reduce drownings in Minnesota.
“Children of color are more likely to drown, children of lower incomes are more likely to drown, as well as our older youth, particularly males,” Petri said.
The foundation recently started a program offering free swimming lessons to youth in Minnesota with plans to join the military after high school. “Salute to Swimming” targets lower income youth who are in JROTC programs or have committed to military service after high school. The youth are given swimwear, adult swim lessons, and CPR and First Aid classes and certifications. The majority of its participants attend St. Paul schools.
There’s a history surrounding American Blacks and water
Disparities in drowning rates can be traced to several things, going back to slavery in the U.S., laws barring Black people from using “public” pools, to more recent closures of public pools in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
During slavery in the U.S., swimming was seen as a means of escape. If enslaved people could swim across rivers, they had better chances of escaping without leaving a trace. Because of that, many slave owners didn’t allow their slaves to swim and used tactics like pushing their heads underwater and telling stories of sea creatures to instill fear of the water.
But the inequity continued past the outlawing of slavery. During segregation, Black people were legally prohibited from using pools.
With the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, pools were desegregated, although it took time for that law to be enforced, and intimidation tactics continued to keep Black people away from pools and beaches. For example, in Ohio, white people threw nails to the bottom of pools, and in Florida, some poured bleach and acid into the pools.
When cities began to integrate, white people started to create private clubs in areas away from the cities. Those private pools had limited access and were only available to people in specific homeownership associations.
By 1959 there were around 10,550 private swim clubs in the U.S., — which more than doubled to around 23,000 in 1962. With that increase, competitive swimming began to take form, and teams were affiliated with private pools – not public ones.
The racialized dynamic of swimming continues today, as areas with more Black residents or lower-incomes have fewer pools than white neighborhoods.
According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of Black Americans have little to no swimming ability (compared to 40% of whites).
In Minnesota, programs like Abbey’s Hope are trying to change that. It’s “Salute to Swimming” program’s first year and 85% of kids enrolled are people of color and qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to Petri.
“These are kids in our community. They deserve the right to be safe around the water just as it follows our mission,” said Petri.
V3, a north Minneapolis fitness organization birthed in 2007 out of wanting to diversify the sport of triathlon, is also hoping to address inequities in swimming.
“We know those are non-traditional sports, especially in north Minneapolis and in the Black communities,” said Malik Rucker, V3’s director of partnerships and community engagement.
Now, V3 is working on a new project along Plymouth Avenue – which will include a fitness center and indoor pools, among other things, in its north Minneapolis community center.
In 2014, a bill sponsored by two Minneapolis DFL lawmakers, state Rep. Karen Clark and state Sen. Jeff Hayden, tried to address the gap in people’s ability to swim. The proposed bill required all public schools to teach swimming or basic water safety if the school didn’t have a pool. It did not pass.
That push for legislation came after two school drownings. Frederick Ndereimana, 19, died in March 2014, 18 days after being found in the Fargo South High School pool, and Abdullahi Charif, 12, was found at the bottom of his St. Louis Park school’s swimming pool following gym class on Feb. 27, 2014 when no lifeguard was present.
Teaching water basics and creating space for Black children to swim, like V3’s pools, is one way to prevent deaths like theirs.
Rucker hopes the entire community center will serve that mission.
“How this came about really was, we noticed that there was a lack of infrastructure, and we believe that it directly correlated with drowning rates for Black and brown folks here in Minnesota,” Rucker said.
Rucker said the entire project will include multi-purpose courts and a 50-meter Olympic Trials pool, making north Minneapolis a regional destination for swim competitions, athletic tournaments, community events and career fairs.
It is much more than just a pool to him.
“What we set out to do is combat health and wellness inequities and drowning disparities,” he said.