Race and the Red River Tragedy

Fifteen-year-old DeKendrix Warner was splashing in the Red River (outside of Shreveport, Louisiana) with six cousins and family friends on Wednesday when he stepped off the shallow shelf into an unexpected 28-foot-drop.  The current pulled him down as he fought for his life, unable to swim.  The other teenagers went to rescue him, despite never having learned to swim themselves.  Warner was the only survivor of this horrific event, rescued by Christopher Patlan, a bystander, while a group of family members stood helpless as they too did not know how to swim.  The other six teenagers drowned trying to save Warner. 

Two things jump out about this incident.  First, it fits with a startling statistic that 70% of black children have no or low swimming ability — nearly twice the number of white children.  And black children are almost three times more likely to drown than their white counterparts.  This unconscionable gap is the result of lingering prejudice and discrimination in our economic system where blacks in the U.S. make $33,916 a year compared to the national median of $50,233, and poverty translates into lack of pool access and swimming lessons for blacks.  Furthermore, according to a recent study conducted by USA Swimming, fear of drowning keeps some black kids from learning how to swim.  We will never know how many of the 1,836 people who died in the flooding from Hurricane Katrina passed away unnecessarily because they never really had the chance to learn how to swim. 

The second point to note about this incident is the way it’s being discussed in mainstream media.  Nobody is hailing the six teens who lost their lives trying to save their friend/cousin as heros, despite the fact that they jumped in after Warner, risking their lives to save his.  Just a year ago, Faron Hall, a homeless individual, was hailed as a “hero” for pulling a teenager from the Red River.  What explains the difference in coverage?  Surely the fact that these young heros passed away would elevate their heroism, as it did for those who gave their lives on 9/11.  And their age should also propel their hero status. 

Some reports go as far as to actively diminish the heroism exhibited at Red River.  AP posted a video labeling the rescue attempts “instinct,” as though their actions were compulsory and not heroic.  And Fire Chief Brian Crawford goes to great lengths in explaining away these acts, attributing them to a selfish “domino effect” despite eye-witness accounts that the teenagers were actively trying to save Warner.

“We’re not sure if when one went in and grabbed another trying to save themselves or if others actually went in when they saw their friends and family go in and try to save them, not considering that they could drown because they couldn’t swim.”

This media coverage tells us that six black teens do not get to be heros in the American imagination.  Brothers Litrelle Stewart, 18; Latevin Stewart, 15; and LaDairus Stewart, 17; and siblings Takeitha Warner, 13; JaMarcus Warner, 14; and JaTavious Warner, 17, are the heros we lost in the Red River tragedy.

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