Many in the community do not consider swimming an essential life skill.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- A newspaper analysis reveals that blacks are far more likely than whites to be drowning victims.
In Ohio, blacks drown at an approximately 133 percent higher rate than whites, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by The Plain Dealer. Nationwide, blacks drown at a 45 percent higher rate.
"You're not going to get killed from being black and not knowing how to golf," said Dennis Harris, who runs a summer program for inner-city youths here. "But this, this will kill you."
Amid the deaths of five black men and boys in the Cleveland area in recent weeks, some say the lack of aquatic acumen among blacks -- perhaps stirred by fewer swimming pools in black neighborhoods or a cultural aversion to water -- is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Essential vs. recreational
Swimming is the only mandatory sport at Harris' summer program. Harris says the black community hasn't addressed the high number of drownings nor embraced swimming as an essential life skill.
For many white, suburban children, swim lessons are a rite of passage; that's not the case for many blacks.
In East Cleveland, the predominantly black, poorest city in the state, there is no public pool, and community activists say there are more pressing concerns to be addressed.
"We're seeing swimming as recreational -- not as a life skill like we are these other things," Stanley Miller, executive director of the Cleveland National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which also is offering a summer camp for inner-city kids.
Computer training as well as team-building and self-esteem classes are mandatory at the camp, but swimming is optional. The focus should be primarily on helping children pull themselves out of poverty, Miller said.
"As people change their lifestyles, move up an economic level, this [swimming] will move up as a priority, too," he said.
But some public health experts see a growing problem that needs to be addressed now. A National Institutes of Health study four years ago found black males ages 5 to 19 were 12 to 15 times more likely to drown in swimming pools than white males in the same age group.
Researchers expect similar findings in another study to be released next year, said Gitanjali Saluja, a research fellow at the institutes. Some say the problems reach beyond having a pool nearby or access to swimming lessons.
Some black families have a deep, entrenched fear of the water that some historians say could date to when white plantation owners forbade slaves from learning how to swim. And until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, blacks weren't allowed to swim in many city pools or even at public beaches.