Racial segregation remains afloat

The Baltimore Sun

I couldn't take my eyes off the screen Jan. 20 as Barack Obama, his black hand resting on the Lincoln Bible, took the oath of office as our 44th president. Like millions of other Americans, I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

My thoughts turned to many things that afternoon - to the Layton Theater of my youth, where African-Americans were relegated to the balcony; to Carolyn Thomas, who joined my all-white high school class in 1961 as its only black member; to the "Whites Only" sign on the bathroom door in the city park not far from home.

I thought of other things, too - like the Potomac River that winds its way through our nation's capital. I thought about how great a sail it would be to come up from the Chesapeake Bay and see the Washington Monument appear over the luff of a tightly trimmed jib.

And then it suddenly struck me: The sport that I've loved for the past 30 years is almost as segregated today as the main floor of that theater in Seaford, Del., was 50 years ago. Recreational boating is almost exclusively a pastime of white America.

But why? We've made so many strides toward equality of opportunity in my lifetime. Why haven't those strides been reflected in boating's demographics?

The most obvious answer is economic. While narrowing substantially in recent years, a gap between average black and white family incomes still exists. Have African-Americans been priced out of the sport? While the high cost of new boats is certainly a factor, most beginning boaters don't buy new boats. They buy used ones that often cost less than a 5- or 6-year-old car might cost.

So if economics doesn't offer a satisfactory answer, what does? Ray Blue, co-founder of the Black Boaters Club of America, believes that African-Americans don't participate because they can't identify with the sport. Like golf before the arrival of Tiger Woods, they rarely see photos of blacks taking part in boating. They assume that it's a white man's diversion.

Something else that plays a significant role in maintaining the paucity of minorities in our sport is elitism - a feeling by some in the boating community that boaters are members of a select group. They prefer to keep it that way. While this subtle message is more socially than racially based, the end result is the same.

Finally, there is a more innocent but no less harmful factor: maintaining the "sailing mystique." Sailors work very hard at convincing nonsailors how difficult it is to sail a boat. We love to impress our weekend guests by making fine adjustments to the back stay and the boom vang, the traveler and the cunningham, all the while acting as if these adjustments are critical to the boat's movement and the safety of passengers and crew. In truth, recreational sailing is not nearly as complex as those oddly named ropes, pulleys and mechanical devices would suggest. While maintaining that secret adds to the mystique, it also drives potential new sailors away.

As we move into a new era in American politics and a new season out on the bay, there are things that concerned boaters can do to encourage minority participation. Three Chesapeake Bay programs that do good work in this area deserve our support: Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating ( www.crab-sailing.org), the O'Brien Sailing Center of the Living Classrooms Foundation ( www.livingclassrooms.org) and Hampton University's Minorities At Sea Together, or MAST ( www.hamptonu.edu).

It all begins and ends with opportunity. The opportunity to feel the thrill of skimming the wave tops or burying the rail. The opportunity to receive capable instruction that stresses the simple joys of boating rather than its intricacies. And finally, the opportunity to feel welcome in an environment that has not always been welcoming.

L. Alan Keene, a retired mental health professional, is a freelance writer and columnist for a Chesapeake Bay boating magazine. His e-mail is keenesofqueens@yahoo.com.

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