Pool Lifeguards Too White for Phoenix; City Spends $15,000 to Offset Certification Fees for Black and Brown Lifeguard Applicants

Too many lifeguards in city pools are white, say Phoenix officials behind a program to encourage more racial diversity in swimming sports.

In the past couple of years, the city has spent $15,000 on free lifeguard certification courses for black and brown kids in an attempt to reverse the longtime trend, National Public Radio reported last week. City staff told NPR that the public pools mostly are used by Hispanic and African-American kids, but the city's 500 lifeguards tended to come from parts of town with well-funded competitive swimming programs. Which meant they were nearly uniformly white.

"The kids in the pool are all either Hispanic or black or whatever, and every lifeguard is white -- and we don't like that," Kelly Martinez, recreation coordinator for Phoenix, told NPR. "The kids don't relate; there's language issues."

We left a message for Martinez this morning but haven't yet heard back.

The general idea has some merit. Statistics show that black and Hispanic people teach their children to swim in lower numbers than whites. The problem seems to be cultural -- while minority populations in the United States used to have trouble finding access to pools, that's no longer the case, experts say.

Training and recruiting more black and Hispanic lifeguards could lead to more blacks and Hispanics becoming proficient in swimming, which would actually save lives.

Still, the comments from Martinez come off as weird. If black and brown kids "don't relate" with white lifeguards, how does that affect the lifeguards' performance as rescuers? Or is the city trying to facilitate a dating service between lifeguards and pool users?

As for "language issues," somehow we doubt that white kids move more slowly to save the lives of struggling swimmers screaming "ayudame!" instead of "help!"

NPR reports that the $15,000 has paid for the $75 lifeguard certification course fee for more than 200 students. Phoenix lifeguard salaries range from $10.30 to $11.35 an hour.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.