Newest Twist in Racial Profiling: ‘Wearing a Mask While Black’

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Photo by Neury Luciano via Flickr

The debate about wearing a face mask in public to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus has taken many forms, whether it’s regarding civil liberties or interpreted as a sign of personal politics.

But as racial bias in law enforcement has risen to the top of the national agenda following the killing of George Floyd, the discussion about mandatory mask-wearing rules has focused attention on the disproportionate impact of the outbreak on Americans of color.

There is valid concern that “law enforcement would use mask-wearing or lack of mask-wearing as a proxy to carry out racial profiling,” according to a new paper in the Washington and Lee Law Review.

“Black Americans risk being targeted by law enforcement, [by] the employees of retail establishments, or [by] their own neighbors for wearing masks,” wrote the paper’s authors, Robert Gatter, a professor at the Center for Health Law Studies in the Saint Louis University School of Law; and Seema Mohapatra, a professor of Law and Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

Complicating the issue, a growing body of evidence indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately harmed black communities, with two times the infection rate and nearly 2.5 times the rate of deaths compared to white communities, the paper noted.

That’s corroborated by other sources as well. A Washington Post analysis says the death rate of African Americans is nearly six times the rate in white communities, partly as a result of the fact that many live in at-risk communities already suffering from co-occuring conditions such as diabetes which has increased their vulnerability.

Not only are African Americans dealing with the increased likelihood of falling ill from coronavirus; they are facing racial profiling while wearing masks in public, the authors wrote.

There have been several widely covered examples of bias towards mask-wearers of color.

The authors cited the case of Kam Buckner, an Illinois State Representative. Buckner, an African American, was stopped by a Chicago police officer after leaving a store, having worn a face mask the entire time he was shopping.

The Chicago cop asked Buckner to show him his shopping receipt, insinuating that Buckner was stealing, and when Buckner asked the officer why, the officer said, “I can’t see your face, man [a]nd you look like you may be up to something,” according to Buckner.

Buckner later tweeted about the incident:

As scores of masked people walked in and out without encumbrance I was reminded of the reality that I have been programmed to show as much of my face as possible and use certain cues to disarm anyone who might have a learned inclination to be suspicious of my very presence.

The paper’s authors say that Buckner’s experience is not unique.

In April, The New York Times reported on several black men who discussed their fears about having to wear a mask around others because of not knowing how they will be perceived by the public.

Allen Hargrove, a 33-year-old African-American man who described himself as having a “football build” at 220 pounds told the New York Times that when he leaves his Brooklyn, N.Y., home he fears that he will be racially profiled and potentially misidentified while wearing a mask.

He said that wearing his business-ordered N95 mask “makes me feel a little bit on edge that anyone can say this man did X, Y and Z just because of the way that I look or the clothes that I have on.”

Moreover, despite any personal fears that some may have, many African Americans continue to wear face masks in public — even when they’re not mandatory. Surveys cited in the Washington and Lee Law Review paper found that blacks are “more concerned about the virus and are taking precautions more seriously than white counterparts.”

This again plays into data that shows wearing a mask in public is “particularly valuable in preventing the spread of the virus in communities where it is more prevalent,” the authors write.

While skeptics suggest the solution is for lawmakers to make masks mandatory for everyone, the authors say this may exacerbate the problem. While there is new evidence coming to light about masked African Americans being harassed by police, a flurry of recent incidents show how racial discrimination infects pandemic-related enforcement.

Over the past few months, photos and videos allegedly depicting racial bias carried out by New York cops in enforcing social distancing rules have been circulating publicly.

Alleged incidents of harassment against minorities have been cited by advocacy groups, and an independent investigation of the reports found “unequal enforcement” of social distancing rules against minorities in New York City.

Just as social distancing was on the public’s radar, mask-wearing will also become more and more prevalent in neighborhoods across the country. As this happens, incidents of harassment over facial coverings may increase unless the proper precautions are put into place, the authors warned.

As it appears that many cities and localities are taking a “mandatory” approach to masks, the authors of the paper recommend “that any mask mandates not include any fines or other punitive measures.”

Instead, government and local officials can simply “require that places of public accommodation offer masks for a nominal price at their entrance and deny entry to anyone who is not wearing a mask and who refuses to purchase one.”

Thus everyone would be on the same playing field, said the authors, noting that Washington, D.C. has already adopted this approach.

Additionally, the authors recommend that any mask mandate be accompanied by an educational campaign, which would take the stigma and fear out of others wearing masks, and make face coverings during a pandemic “less of a symbol of political affiliation.”

The authors quoted a VOX article that sums up the problem, saying “In essence, black men have to pick their poison—risk their lives (and the lives of others) to C[OVID]-19 by not wearing a mask, [or] risk their lives to police officers who see them as suspicious while wearing a mask…”

The full paper can be accessed here. 

Additional Reading: Minorities Disproportionately Impacted by COVID-19 Policing: NYC Study May 21, 2020

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report

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