A life guard stand is seen at the Lake Nokomis Main Beach on Monday, September 27. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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On September 9, two boys went under the water in Lake Nokomis, in south Minneapolis. 

They were pulled out. But six days later, one of those boys, Hussane Abdi Ali, died at Hennepin Healthcare Hospital, according to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office. He was 10. 

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board says the boys were swimming about 40 yards outside of the beach’s designated swimming area, and that lifeguards were on duty that day and responded to the incident. Minneapolis firefighters also assisted with CPR and transported the boys to the hospital. 

The tragic death is emblematic of a troubling trend: Nationwide, Black and Indigenous youth are more likely to die by accidental drowning. And even as drowning deaths have decreased in recent decades, disparities continue. Black children are less likely to swim than their white peers, but experts say the reasons for that statistic goes beyond the common narrative about the history of enforced and de facto segregation at many swimming pools in the United States. Disinvestment in Black communities and a lack of culturally competent lessons and role models in aquatics also play a significant role. 

Around 4,000 people die from drowning each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the second-leading cause of death for children aged 1-4 and a top three cause of accidental death for people under 30. 

Black Americans are 1.5 times as likely to drown as whites, according to a June 2021 report by the CDC that studied drowning deaths in people under 30. Native Americans have twice the drowning death rates as whites. 

Water recreation is a tradition in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes and the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and those discrepancies appear to be even greater. CDC data show that for people under 30 from 1999-2019, the state’s overall drowning death rate is 1.1 per 100,000.  But Black and Asian Minnesotans are twice as likely to drown as white residents. Indigenous Minnesotans drown at more than three times the rate of their white peers. 

The study is part of an effort by the CDC to measure drowning deaths by race nationwide. Overall, drowning deaths have decreased steadily in recent decades, but disportionate drowning rates for people of color continued, the CDC found. Drowning disparities between Black and white Americans noticeably decreased between 1999 and 2005, then increased significantly from 2005 to 2019. 

“Although drowning death rates have decreased overall, racial and ethnic disparities in drowning death rates persisted,” Dr. Tessa Clemens, who co-authored the study, told Sahan Journal via email. 

White children are more likely to drown in private pools, while Black children are more likely to drown at public pools and beaches, or at hotel and motel pools. Black children ages 5-19 drown in swimming pools at 5.5 times the rate of their white peers, according to USA Swimming, a nonprofit that serves as the sport’s governing body in the United States. 

Water safety in Minnesota

Minnesota has averaged 53 drowning deaths annually in the past five years, of which 39 are non-boating drownings, a review of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources data shows.

The Mississippi River runs for 680 miles in Minnesota, and is a common spot for drownings. Many river drowning victims are fishermen who go overboard without life jackets, according to DNR reports, but swimming deaths also occur.  

In June 2021, a 12-year-old Bhutanese boy, Ashok Pradhan drowned in the Mississippi River after slipping on a rock at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul, according to the Pioneer Press. In July 2020, a 11-year-old  Black boy named De’Andre Tyson also drowned at Hidden Falls

On August 29, 2020, 6-year-old Isaac Childress III drowned after entering the river at Boom Island Park in Minneapolis. 

Minneapolis Park Board President Jono Cowgill said the organization is well aware of racial discrepancies in swim knowledge. He thinks focusing on those gaps and offering opportunities for people to learn to swim is key to address drownings. 

In 2018, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board opened the Phillips Aquatic Center in the city’s south side to address some of those barriers. The project came about after a concentrated campaign by the nonprofit group Minneapolis Swims. 

At Phillips, kids under 12 can use the pool for free and lessons are regularly offered. Minneapolis parks also offer lessons at North Commons Water Park, Webber Park, and Wirth Beach on the northside, Jim Lupient Water Park in northeast, and at Lake Nokomis on the south side. Scholarships are available to city residents and in the summer of 2021, free lessons were offered at North Commons. This summer, 909 youth participated in swim lessons at city parks and 113 of them received scholarships to cover the costs, according to a Minneapolis parks spokesperson. 

“There’s an ongoing need, and the deaths this summer have underlined the need for education,” Cowgill said. 

Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

The Minneapolis Park Board owns 16 of the 22 miles of Mississippi River shoreland in the city. Its longstanding policy is to post signs where people can swim, not where people shouldn’t , according to a spokesperson. There are no signs along the river in Minneapolis warning people about the dangers of swimming in the current. 

In recent years, more parkland has been developed along the river, including the recently completed Water Works project downtown and the coming Graco Park in northeast Minneapolis. With the increasing focus of parks near the Mississippi, Cowgill said re-examining the placement of warning signs should be considered.  

St. Paul Parks and Recreation does put warning signs about the dangers of swimming at parks along the Mississippi River such as Hidden Falls and Crosby Farm. The city has added multilingual signage in recent years warning about dangerous currents in the river. 

“Regardless of posted signage people are drawn to water, especially during the warm summer months,” St. Paul Parks spokesperson Clare Cloyd said. “It is important to understand and respect the conditions of the Mississippi River and other natural areas across the city.”

St. Paul Parks and Recreation recently received a grant from the Metropolitan Council for swim lesson scholarships at Como Pool and Lake Phalen Beach. The department offers fee assistance for families who can’t afford swim lessons and other programs at Great River Water Park. 

Teaching a love for water

Nearly 64 percent of Black children across the country have no to low swimming ability, according to a 2017 report by USA Swimming. The report found 45 percent of Latino children and 40 percent of white children have low to no swimming ability. The same report found 65 percent of Black children would like to swim more than they do. 

Wealth also plays a big role in determining swimming ability, the survey found. In families with annual household incomes under $50,000, 79 percent of children can’t swim. 

The common narrative is that segregation and lack of access to public pools has made it less likely that Black children will learn to swim. But that story is only partly correct, according to Professor Samuel Myers of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. In many segregated cities, Black communities created their own culture of swimming excellence, Myers said. Racial gaps in drowning rates began to rise when cities desegregated and many white families moved to the suburbs, leaving cities with fewer funds to pay for expensive staffing and maintenance of pools. 

The Twin Cities area had very few Black lifeguards or competitive swimmers, and no predominately Black swim clubs, Myers said. A lack of indoor pools or school pools in Black neighborhoods also contributed to gaps in swim knowledge in the Twin Cities, he said. 

“I think one of the big ironies about this myth about why Blacks are more likely to drown than whites (i.e. the legacy of segregated pools) is that it absolves current decision makers or funders of any culpability related to existing disparities,” Myers said via email.  

Government bodies should focus on putting pools in schools in Black neighborhoods, mandating a basic swimming test for Minnesota students, and programming to hire Black lifeguards, Myers said.  

Some states have succeeded in addressing drowning disparities. Myers co-authored a study on concentrated efforts in Florida to teach Black youth to swim and involve them in competitive swimming, which resulted in an erasure of drowning disparities between Blacks and whites from the 1970s to 2015. 

Today, access to swimming areas for Black families is much improved, according to Ayanna Rakhu, a Kinesiology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and certified USA Swimming coach. Her research is focused on how to encourage more Black mothers to swim and pass down water knowledge to the next generation. 

Rakhu was always drawn to the water, and she remembers looking up to lifeguards as a young girl in Minneapolis. Her mom signed her up for swim lessons at the south Minneapolis YMCA on Blaisdell Avenue at age 6, and she immediately loved the freeing feeling of the water. Rakhu grew up between St. Louis and Minneapolis, and worked as a lifeguard in both places. After time away from the water, she was motivated to return when her daughter was born. But she noticed many of her friends weren’t bringing their kids to pools. 

”I realized I was taking this for granted, that I am a Black woman who swims,” she said.  

In 2019, Rakhu resumed her education and chose to focus on swim education for Black mothers. While access to water is better than ever before, she’s found many people who say they want to learn to swim don’t know where to start. 

“For generations there’s been a ‘don’t do that’ stigma around the water in our communities,” Rakhu said.  

When Rakhu teaches lessons, she tries to divert from the traditional order to make students more comfortable in the water. Often she starts lessons with students standing in the water and breathing exercises, instead of throwing people in the pool or beginning with back floats. She believes offering family and group lessons might help make learning to swim more appealing to Black families. 

Myer’s research shows a direct correlation between the number of Black lifeguards and fewer Black drownings. Rakhu noted that the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Community Education program is trying to teach more students of color to swim and set them up for lifeguarding jobs in the city. She’s excited about the new facility being built by the nonprofit V3 Sports in the Near North neighborhood Minneapolis, which will bring an Olympic-sized pool and a smaller training pool to the north side.

Moreover, Rakhu said, reducing disparities in drowning rates and swimming abilities will involve having more conversations about getting in the water and learning. 

“It’s up to us to say, ‘Hey I want to swim, being in the water is important and I want to change this,’” she said. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...