As the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday approaches, I want to discuss the subject of leisure as it relates to race. I spent many years as the aquatics director for a large urban recreation department recruiting lifeguards from varied ethnic backgrounds. The lack of African-American lifeguards serves as a negative role-model for black youth.
The space for leisure has long been an important aspect of the leisure experience. One author discussed the example of the beach and its surfing subculture as a leisure space of pleasure, control and resistance for men, but mostly excluded women.
I see some similarities in the world of aquatics related to racial discrimination and leisure spaces.
Jim Crow laws in the post-slavery South institutionalized racial separation of leisure spaces. Whites had better parks and swimming pools available, leaving Blacks with inferior facilities, if any. Even in the 21st century, the “colored only” signs may be gone, but racialized spatial relations continue to exist. Generations later, African-American families have few traditions related to swimming pools.
Take a closer look at the “country club” sports like tennis, golf and swimming. I challenge you to actively count how many African-Americans are well known in these sports besides Tiger Woods and Venus & Serena Williams.
The hegemony of institutionalized racism of leisure spaces has possibly left generations of African-Americans without an innate ability to develop values for parks and recreation and, in particular, an affinity for swimming in public pools. S.F. Phillip (2000) in his article, Race and the Pursuit of Happiness, from the Journal of Leisure Research, gave several examples, two of which described how very few African-Americans visit national parks, and conversely, how few Caucasians play basketball in the inner city. He asked if leisure spaces function as societal mechanisms to limit racial contact.
In the modern world, how has institutionalized racism affected the African-American mother who is afraid of water and is unable to teach or articulate the values of water safety to her children?
American swimmer Cullen Jones is trying to change these values. At the 2012 Olympic Games, Jones was the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in swimming. He went on to win another gold and two silver medals. As a young child, he was the victim of a near drowning in a public water park and his grandmother promptly put him into swim lessons.
According to Black Enterprise.com, Jones said, “Thanks to the hard work and research of the University of Memphis and the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative, we now know that there are 3 major reasons why African Americans don’t swim. The #1 reason is fear, which trumps all other factors; then parental backing and physical appearance.”
Another article stated, “there is no question that not knowing how to swim contributes to the deaths of minority children who drown in pools and in natural bodies of water such as lakes, streams or the ocean. The focus is on minority children because the data show they are most at risk for drowning. It’s a cultural issue, because many of the African-American and Hispanic children have parents and grandparents who never learned to swim.”
In my own professional experience, I have seen how few African-Americans pursue jobs as lifeguards, let alone participate in competitive swimming. Out of 300,000 people who visit the swimming pools annually, roughly 25% of visitors are African-American. One year, out of 140 lifeguard staff, only 13 were classified as Latino, Asian or Black. In the 14 years while I was the director, I was only able to hire four, qualified African-American Pool Managers.
Cullen Jones’ Make a Splash Initiative provides important leisure education and swim lessons to families from diverse ethnic backgrounds. The safety commission is working with the YMCA, the American Red Cross, public schools and other community organizations to boost access to free swimming lessons.
What else can families do? Citizens in many local park districts are voting to tax themselves to provide more funds for public safety and general funded recreation programs, including aquatics. Sign your children up for swim lessons, swim team programs and junior lifeguard programs. Encourage your teens to become lifeguards for a worthwhile and decent-paying summer job.
With access to free and low-cost swimming programs, children from all ethnic backgrounds can learn to swim and eventually become lifeguards. Perhaps they can be the new role models to other children who attend swimming pools.