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Rio 2016: If Simone Manuel inspires black children to swim, she could literally save their lives

Another reminder that representation matters.

Swimming - Olympics: Day 7 Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

As Simone Manuel makes waves with her gold medal win Thursday night, her historic victory is already inspiring African Americans across the country to learn how to swim too.

As Washington Post columnist Jerry Brewer put it, “To understand the significance of what Simone Manuel did Thursday night, when she became the first African American woman to win an individual swimming medal in an Olympics, you have to know the current against which she swam. She hasn’t always liked being singled out as a ‘black swimmer’ because she thinks it has a diminishing connotation, but she realizes how powerful a symbol she now is.”

A part of that is recognizing America’s racist swimming pool history. But another is addressing how that history impacts the present, including the fact that a significant number of black people don’t know how to swim, which puts their lives in danger.

According to a 2010 study by USA Swimming, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of black children and nearly as many Hispanic children (58 percent) self-reported minimal swimming ability compared with 42 percent of white children, which puts these children of color at a far greater risk of drowning. Black children ages 5 to 19 were 5.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than white children, according to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

Unequal access to swimming facilities is one contributing factor. In the 1970s and ’80s, many cities halted plans to build public swimming pools or closed them altogether, which disproportionately impacted working-class communities, which were often communities of color. Meanwhile, upper-class, predominantly white counterparts had access to private pools in their communities and often at their homes.

But stigmatizing images also invite serious consequences for communities of color. In June, the Red Cross came under fire for a racist pool safety poster that depicted white people displaying “cool behavior” while almost everyone behaving in ways that were “not cool” were people of color.

Last summer, many watched, horrified, as a police officer in McKinney, Texas, was caught on video roughly handling a black teenage girl and pointing a gun at her peers after local white residents claimed the group caused a “disturbance” at the private neighborhood pool.

Tatyana Rhodes, 19, who lived in the neighborhood, organized the McKinney pool party event. Nonetheless, her white neighbors were upset, and harassed the teens with racist statements, including telling the teens to go back to “Section 8 housing.”

Not only did it appear to be a case of racial profiling, it was also a 21st-century reminder that black children are not automatically welcomed in these spaces.

Indeed, Manuel is a refreshing representation of what is possible for black athletes, and for African Americans who have long stayed poolside.

“For people who believe that they can’t do it, I hope I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming,” Manuel said to reporters after her historic win. “You might be pretty good at it.”

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