Why coronavirus mask-wearing orders leave black Americans facing a tough decision

“The criminalization of blackness has spread during this pandemic,” notes one activist, explaining why men of color may fear that wearing masks for protection could bring them more harm than good. (Getty Images)
“The criminalization of blackness has spread during this pandemic,” notes one activist, explaining why men of color may fear that wearing masks for protection could bring them more harm than good. (Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic has created life-and-death dilemmas for people all over the globe — and a particularly devastating one for black men living in America: Wear a mask for protection against COVID-19? Or go without one, simply to lower the risk of being perceived as a criminal?

This specific quandary comes amid some key factors: reports about black people dying of the coronavirus at disproportionately high rates, recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all adults to now wear cloth masks in public, and, taking effect this week, a New York State order that everyone must wear a mask in public if social distancing is not possible.

That all leaves black men, many of whom have grown accustomed to monitoring their appearance so as to not look “threatening” in public, between a rock and a hard place.

“The criminalization of blackness has spread during this pandemic,” Ashton Woods, co-founder and lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Houston, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s disheartening that CDC and our leaders told us that we didn’t need to wear masks in public, only to reverse course without providing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to the general population. Now we have to wear whatever is available to us as the data continues to show that black people are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.”

And adding insult to injury, Woods says, “We have to contend with protecting ourselves while possibly being forced into going the extra mile to explain our intentions for shopping with a face mask on.”

The dilemma has been getting more and more attention in the press, including locally, such as in Toledo, Ohio, where ABC affiliate WTVG addressed concerns. Activist Willie Knighten said that black men expressed fears of being racially profiled if they were to wear homemade masks in public, explaining, “It has a lot to do with the relationship, or a lack of relationship, that a lot of young black men have with our police department.” Still, said Toledo Police Chief George Kral, “If anyone should be religiously wearing a mask, it’s members of the African-American community. And I encourage that.” He added that officers are expecting to see people in all sorts of masks, and that they go through diversity training.

That’s something a group of politicians are pushing for on a federal level, particularly in response to New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mask-wearing executive order just went into effect, and where “the local governments have police forces. They can enforce it. They will enforce it,” he told CNN. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on Friday, joined forces with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and other Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sending a letter to Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray, urging federal law enforcement agencies to lay out antibias training for police officers. They explained that officers may increasingly encounter masked pedestrians as the country begins to roll back lockdowns in the upcoming weeks.

“With the ongoing public health emergency, it is more important than ever for law enforcement to build trust with communities of color,” reads the letter, as reported by the Associated Press. “If communities of color — especially African-American communities —  feel at risk of disproportionate or selective enforcement, they may avoid seeking help or adopting precautionary measures recommended by the CDC. This, in turn, could have dire public health consequences.”

Adding fuel to this fire has been the wave of lockdown protests sweeping the nation, prompting some to question why visibly armed, masked white men haven’t received the same scrutiny. One user tweeted, “I wonder what would happen if it was a group of black men in the back of a truck with guns and masks? Would the cops still just stand there?”

Going back to an earlier stage in the coronavirus crisis, a March YouTube video now with more than 280,000 views showed a white police officer following two black men wearing surgical masks in an Illinois Walmart. In the video, the officer had claimed that a city ordinance prevented people from wearing masks in public. With a hand resting on his gun, he followed them until they left the store, leaving the men to describe the encounter as “terrifying.” 

These kinds of interactions could have devastating public-health consequences, as Harris points out: Though black people account for about 15 percent of Illinois’s population, they make up 41 percent, of the state’s 274 coronavirus-related deaths.

After that video was posted and widely circulated, some black men admitted to choosing muted colors for their bandanna face masks — and even using their “cute dogs” or biracial infants to be seen as less threatening while out in public wearing masks. As Michael Jeffries, a Wellesley College sociologist whose work focuses on racism and culture, told the Washington Post, “Black folks can’t even wear hooded sweatshirts without being accused of being criminals. To issue guidance like this without any historical awareness — especially given recent and traumatic history — it’s going to be hard for people to follow that advice, considering the consequences, which are literally deadly.”

The COVID-19 pandemic that was initially thought to be “the great equalizer” has fast proven to be anything but — and in black communities especially, the virus has only exacerbated the well-known inequities across the nation. “If we really want to be honest about this conversation, it’s about those who have and those who have not — and those who have not, had not for a long time,” Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia told the Boston Globe. “COVID-19 sheds light on a reality a lot of us have already known.” Echoing that, Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School said, “We live in a very racist society, so it’s not at all surprising that this is something we need to be aware of and think about as we talk about COVID-19.”

Many officials have embraced racial stereotypes when issuing warnings about the coronavirus — including Surgeon General Jerome Adams, himself a black man, who recently urged black Americans to “step up” and stop drinking, smoking and doing drugs — if not for themselves than for their “abuela,” adding, in language that some viewed as condescending, “Do it for your granddaddy, do it for your big mama, do it for your pop-pop.” 

However, many are coming forward to explain how a long history of racial bias may be the real cause behind the dismal numbers — with specific efforts, such as Wednesday night’s Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort, in partnership with the NAACP and United Way Worldwide, and with star power from Chance the Rapper, DJ Khaled and many more — aiming to turn the situation around. Experts say decades of substandard housing conditions, lack of access to healthful food, employment inequalities and poor environmental conditions has left the black American population particularly vulnerable during this crisis. As Mejia said, “This pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the deep-rooted systemic racism that exists in America right now.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides. 

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