April 23, 2006

More on blacks and swimming

As I've mentioned before (here and here), a new study shows that young black males are 5 to 12 times more likely to drown than their white peers. My best friend lost his stepson to the Kern River last year, so I'm particularly aware now of how dangerous water can be. The drowning death toll of black youths is terribly high, especially considering how little time they spend around water. Nobody knows why. Unfortunately, the vast majority of media would rather continue to let black kids drown than to have a frank discussion of why they drown.

My pet theory is that biological and cultural differences interact. Although blacks who know how to swim can swim fine, they often find learning to swim more frightening than whites do because, when in good shape, blacks are denser on average than whites.

If that's true, then blacks need to get the message: Your children are more vulnerable to drowning, so you must teach them to swim.

Readers write:

I may have mentioned to you in an e-mail quite some time ago about my experience in the US Marine Corps boot camp. I'm a North American indigene, coastal Salish, morphologically similar to the Inuit. During the swimming qualification (a holdover from when the majority of USMC duties were aboard US Naval vessels, the way the Canadian Mounties still had dressage training until not that long ago) I floated like a cork while all the "dark green" Marine recruits ended up being fished from the bottom of the pool by the lifeguards. We were all teenage guys who'd been running twice a day under the loving attention of our drill instructors for the last two months, all volunteers for service in the Marines. The black guys just had less body fat. The DI's all mentioned this beforehand, and told them not to worry too much about it.


I asked one of my good black friends about this in college a hundred years ago. He laughed and said something to the effect that white people like to swim because they think a tan makes them attractive. Blacks don’t have that problem. He also said that pool water makes a black person’s skin all rusty and nasty.

I had no idea what he meant by rusty, so he lightly scratched his arm. The residue of dead skin showed up as a grayish mark. That’s rust.

A lot of whites spend time in swimsuits in part because sunshine on their skin elevates their mood. Sunbathing isn't just cosmetic -- it makes a lot of people, especially blonds, happy. Unfortunately, I've never seen an explanation of the biochemistry of this. Do darker skinned people not get as much of an emotional lift from sunbathing?


Blacks are not natural swimmers and avoid learning how to swim, which I think accounts for the rate of drowning. But when trained they are really good swimmers. I was a division I swimmer and before that I swam on a public swim team in an integrated town for 10 years and saw and coached some decent black swimmers. They definitely resist swimming as a sport. I have had black parents call me and ask me to convince their son to swim in high school instead of joining the basketball team and sitting on the bench because they were better at swimming than basketball. Our high school sent a black diver to the Pennsylvania state championship this year and I also watched a black guy win the 50 yard freestyle at the state meet.


I was on the track team at XXX University in 1996-7 where the sprinters were almost all black. On a side note, all whites on the short distance team sprinted and ran hurdles. Long distance was mostly all white (our team wasn't good enough to attract any Kenyans.) We would keep track of our body fat and the blacks would have percentages in the 2-3 range whereas whites were generally around 8-10 although sometimes as low as 6.

I read somewhere that Danny Farmer, who back in the 1990s was UCLA's star wide receiver and All-American volleyball player, had a 3.7% body fat, which is about the lowest I've ever heard of for a white guy. A former UCLA coed writes: "Poor abused, yet criminally hot, Danny Farmer. He ran into me at Thrifty once -- literally, we turned corners in the toothpaste aisle and collided, and it actually kind of hurt me, as he had no body fat -- and he was SO NICE about it to me. He was all, "wow, are you okay?" and I was like, "dfjakgiariugbdddIloveyou." or something, and he was like, "I'm really sorry I ran into you," and I could not say anything coherent in response. Sigh. I had the biggest crush on him. Me, and 11,000 other girls."


How likely is a black kid to be forced by his parents or others to wear a lifejacket while boating? This is somewhat related to intelligence and education, but at least as much to culture--do all the people around you laugh at you for wearing a lifejacket, or does everyone around frown at parents whose kids aren't wearing them?

Do blacks ever go boating? It's not like I can afford it either these days, but when I used to do a little sailing and kayaking, I noticed that only thing that seemed to bring black people to the water was fishing.


Here's a little factoid that I learned when I worked at the post office: blacks typically don't learn how swim. It's just not part of their culture, even for the ones who can afford swimming lessons and pool passes (like postal workers). Since most of the deaths take place in hotel pools, I'm guessing that black kids, who would have never been to a pool if they had not happened to stay at a hotel with one, decide to give it a try, with tragic results. The fact that black males especially have a high drowning rate could be attributed to the fact that males, of any race, are more likely to do something idiotic, like jump into a swimming pool when they don't know how to swim.

The article's writer probably didn't know that. Whites are mostly ignorant of non-white culture.


One factor you haven't mentioned is poorly-trained, low-quality lifeguards at the public pools urban black kids swim at.

I worked for many summers as a camp counselor in Maryland. About 15% of our campers and staff were African-Americans from DC or Prince George's County. It was almost a cliché that the white suburban kids could all swim well when they got there, but that the black kids from the city couldn't -- were often terrified of the water, in fact, including the older kids (14-15 yrs) who were otherwise pretty tough. A high proportion of black counselors couldn't swim well, either, about half. I'm not sure I even met a white counselor who couldn't swim.

During Staff Training Week, some of these black counselors would take the training to become certified lifeguards (Red Cross or YMCA), and a certain percentage often failed, perhaps a quarter to a third, while another quarter-to-third would pass but just baaarely, and I sure wouldn't trust that percentage to watch my kids in the pool. One guy got certified and could barely doggie paddle his way across the pool! There were always a lot of highly-qualified white lifeguards (and, to be fair, a smattering of well-qualified black ones) around so no one ever drowned, but the overall quality of the black lifeguards from the inner city was way, way lower than the quality of the suburban white lifeguards, who I would certainly trust with my kids' lives.

But imagine an overcrowded inner-city public pool. The kids may be behaving a little more rambunctiously than the kids at a white suburban pool, but it's the quality of the lifeguards that's the biggest problem. No safety net of hyperqualified, experienced white lifeguards to mask the relative incompetence of the majority of the black ones, and that's when the drownings happen. We'd occasionally get reports from the camp director of a drowning at some other camp somewhere in the country, and our pool staff would read the incident report summaries and think, what the hell kind of pool is this? It was always something like: the only two lifeguards on duty were a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old, and one wouldn't even be certified, and the other would have been inexplicably away from the pool for 10 minutes when the drowning happened, stuff like that.

So I'm sure the reason a higher % of black kids than white kids drown is multicausal (like everything in studying human behavior), but the quality of the lifeguards at the pools black kids frequent is major, and might even be the biggest overall cause.

It sounds like a lot of black kids who drown have snuck into a public pool that's closed, or drown in a motel/hotel pool.


Occam's razor: The simplest explanation for more accidental drownings among the black population is that not many of them know how to swim. In turn, the simplest explanation for this is that black people usually don't *like* to swim, because it tends to ruin anything that they've done to their hair (any straightening, etc.).

Thanks. That should be true for girls, but an awful lot of the boys have very short hair.

True, but who usually makes sure that a kid learns to swim? The mother. Particularly in a single parent household (it goes without saying). And if the mother has never learned to value swimming, she probably won't push swimming on her sons. And so the cultural value of learning to swim never takes root.


I don't think you are correct here. I remember Bob Kiputh's admonition to me. Buoyancy is key. Many people will float unless they blow their breath out which results in their sinking. One thing swimmers have is huge lungs because they can't breath when they want to-- that may be a factor. I have heard talk of "swimmer's muscles" vis a vis other sports' muscles, but I realize that body fat is deduced from immersion results so denser bones would not be a factor. On the other hand I've looked at the bodies of thousands of swimmers over a lifetime and hardly any of them look at all like, say, Joe Frazer. And I think I am right that only one black man has ever won an Olympic swimming event and that was recently....I'm guessing it's reduced access to swimming pools and swimming teachers when young, coupled with a bit of parental neglect and ignorance.

Anthony Nesty of Surinam beat the great Matt Biondi in 1988 for a gold medal. An American kid who is a little bit black won a gold recently, but you couldn't really tell by looking at him. I don't think that at the Olympic level, differences in buoyancy matter, except maybe in the 1500 meters, but they matter in getting started swimming.


I wonder if this person grew up around many poor blacks. Blacks show FAR less inclination towards the water than whites do. The ones who do show an inclination for the water express it almost exclusively at public swimming pools, and they avoid the deep end like the bubonic plague. Seriously, growing up in Savannah I remember distinctly how ironclad this rule was, and how (literally) impossible it was to get any of my black friends to break it - not one ever did.

Black behavior was similar at the beach. Sure, blacks like the beach, but they don't care much for the water. It's like there's a rule in the Universal Handbook of Blackness: thou shalt wade no deeper than thy knees. I'm not exaggerating. I think I remember seeing maybe one or two blacks swim past waist deep at the beach during my childhood.


From "In the Minority" in Aquatics International by Shabnam Mogharabi:

Ingrained cultural differences also make it difficult. For instance, coaches specializing in minority swim instruction say that more than 50 percent of black parents do not know how to swim, so the skill never becomes a priority in those households.

“Some of the parents are scared of water,” says Kim Burgess, director of Swim Central, a program of the Broward County Parks and Recreation Department in Florida that works with local schools to provide underprivileged children with exposure to water. “They were never taught to swim, so their kids don’t get taught. It’s not a priority.”

More than three-fourths of black women say they are nonswimmers. Many coaches and black athletes say that hair care and maintenance is one of the issues that keep them out of the water. Some white aquatics professionals don’t realize the time and money black women spend to maintain and style their hair. Chemically treated water tends to undo styles quickly, and causes frizziness and other problems.


It seems to me that motor-vehicle deaths are not higher among blacks because they are more likely to use public transportation. They also do not have high DUI rates. Black students have argued that this is due to less drunkenness among blacks, but the data more strongly support the idea that they do not use cars as much.

Accidental deaths which clearly reflect recklessness, such as gun accidents, are more common among blacks teens and young adults. (This is not due to greater access to guns--whites have higher levels of ownership).

Here's a study of motor vehicle deaths by miles driven. I was under the impression that young Mexican men were the most dangerous drivers, but this says blacks are.

I have a vague impression that there are a lot of activities where blacks aren't daredevils. For example, extreme sports are heavily white and Asian. I saw some ESPN show once where an NBA player tried rock climbing -- he was catatonic with fear. I recall a black comedian talking about how blacks don't like rollercoasters. (I'm terrified of rollercoasters myself, so I couldn't tell you first hand what the demographics are.) Perhaps blacks don't much like heights?

In contrast, Iroquois Indians traditionally get construction jobs on NYC skyscrapers. When asked what was the secret of why Indians weren't afraid of heights, one worker replied, Of course we're scared. We just refuse to show it.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Blacks generally have denser bones that whites and orientals. They also normally have a lower body fat percentage. They sink like rocks in the water. As I am writing this, I just learned that Kevin Eubanks from the Tonight Show almost drowned last weekend...

Anonymous said...

Well I've always been known as the waterbaby..I've always loved swimming, I first learned to swim after almost drowning at the age of seven. I'm now 43. I'm also about 5 stone overweight and have been for many years so my body fat is much heigher..not lower. And am still a great lover of swimming,. I once trained to be a lifeguard..I was also asked by teams to join their swimming clubs..I never did, didn't want to. I'm a very good butterfly swimmer, I tought myself to swim butterfly. I'm also very good at other strokes, with great technique and have a lot of stamina, I have tought many people to swim..both Children and adults. To me swimming is second nature.
Did I forget to mention that I'm a 4'11. overweight black woman with 3 sons?
Luvlybubly..catch me if you can.

Michael Poulos said...

My pet theoty involves that several things interact:

1: Parents who don't swim can't teach their kids.

2: In the case of poor people (any ethnic group) theycan't afford the "modest" fee for a class ay a YMCA. The present price is around $100, a modest sum but unaffordable for many poor families.

3: If a high school has a swim class, given barbaric methods, it is effectively too late to learn. Swimming is best learned while young.

4: By the time someone is an adult, suitable instruction gets expensive and is difficult in the extreme, especially if you have a past of traumatic failure in previous tries.

I'm white, and a severe nonswimmer. I guess I have lots of company outside of my exact ethnic group due to the same economic factors above.

Anonymous said...

This post perpetuates myths & stereotypes. Just because you heard "blacks have more dense bodies" when you were a kid does not make it true. Blacks don't swim because whites didn't let them into pools for an awful long time. It's no more complex than that.

Anonymous said...

"blacks are denser on average than whites"

Body density has little to do with swimming ability. I've taught swimming and the difference is insignificant. The comment is silly.

In Canada, swimming lessons are subsidized and cost about $40. If people are concerned about kids not knowing how to swim, give money to the Red Cross to set up programs. It does not take long at all to teach a kid to swim. It just takes will.

matt dickinson said...

I don't mean to discount any biological or genetic discussions here, but I would think the primary reason blacks don't know how to swim is because they are still on the lower end of things economically. We don't normally think about it, but swimming is something of a luxury - swimming pools, even neighborhood ones, add to the value of a house, and lakehouses are more expensive than non-lakehouses, the same with beachhouses and trips to the beach. It may be worth comparing the swimming and drowning rates in African countries as well as islands like Jamaica and Haiti.

Nanadoo said...

This black density business with swimming is probably an urban legend. How much more 'dense' are they, really? A boat is much more dense than I am too. But more importantly, Phelps has far more lean muscle mass, and a low % body fat, judging by his physique, probably has denser bones due to all the weight training; in short by any measure, he's much more dense than I and he's the top swimmer in the world, whereas I would probably drown if I were required to swim a 400M in one fell swoop.

Nanadoo said...

Lets also mention that women are less dense than men, and men seem to have the potential to swim much better. So let's forget all this 'density' talk.

ChristopherAllen said...

As a young man (now 27yrs) I was swimming freely as young as seven years. My father taught my three older brothers and me how to swim because he valued the human necessity of surviving all facets of nature. He also taught us how to make a fire in the woods, how to climb rocks, how to create warmth in outdoor environments; ultimately he showed us the value of fundamental human sustainability. We've also learned how to acquire (in)formal education, learn a trades and skills, and how to raise a family. These are like-essentials to all humans. We Americans have these privileges of public swimming pools and regulated campgrounds as well as public education, civil rights, and fair trial, therefore we should appreciate these luxuries. But we cannot unless we regard them as a luxury and develop a higher appreciation for them. The stereotypes and stats are futile in the case, the reality is that people of all races should embrace nature which is our Father's gift to this abysmal world.

rxc and jlm said...

I used to do a bit of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, where there are a LOT of blacks of all sorts of classes, from govt wonks to inner city youth, and I can say that I agree with the comment about how few blacks seem to be interested in boating. We used to see them on "head-boats" which took people out for a day of fishing, but very few on their own boats. The first time we did see black people on a non-head-boat was in St. Michaels, where they pulled up to the dock at a locally famous crab house. Blacks in crab houses are something no one would ever think was unusual. Everyone loves crabs. But black people in charge of a non work-boat was so different that it was almost jarring. I can also say that I have never seen any blacks on sailboats. I don't understand why, but it seems that they do not like to pull on ropes to make the rags move to make the boat move. Even though there have to be LOTS of black people in the Ches Bay area who could afford expensive boats, and even expensive sail boats.

Very strange.