When the CDC issued guidelines in early March asking people to wear masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the question for many Black men was not where to get a mask or which kind. It was: How do I cover my face and not get shot?
As the recent killing of George Floyd made achingly clear, the widespread fear of violent death at the hands of law enforcement is not unfounded. Being killed by police is one of the leading causes of death for young Black men. A study last year found one in a thousand Black men in America could expect to be killed by police.
Despite their fears of infection, and statistics showing Black communities are among the hardest hit, many Black men feel wearing a mask is a bigger threat than the coronavirus. Just as they are more likely than white people to be stopped and frisked, to be pulled over for traffic violations, and to be charged with drug crimes, Black individuals also appear more likely to be targeted by police for simply wearing masks. In a heartbreaking calculus, many are choosing not to wear them at all.
“Which death do they choose? Covid-19 or police shooting?” asked Vickie Mays, a distinguished professor of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health who studies health disparities and has been tracking incidents where Black men wearing masks were harassed. “We have African Americans who have been dragged out of stores, who have been ordered by police and store guards to pull their masks down or take their masks off.”
“You also see people protesting during this pandemic because people feel strongly what is happening to them is worse than the risk of death,” said Mays, who is also a professor of psychology. “These are horrible risk assessments no one should have to make.”
One Black man who was recently targeted is Kam Buckner, a 35-year-old attorney and state senator from Illinois who was shopping at his local hardware store in Chicago’s South Loop while wearing a face mask, as mandated by an executive order in Illinois. While many white customers streamed by wearing masks, a uniformed officer stopped Buckner as he was leaving the store with a cart, asking to see his receipt and ID.
“It wasn’t like I had anything that was the least provocative in my cart. It was flowers for my garden,” Buckner told STAT in a phone interview from his porch Monday evening as protestors marched just yards away. “When I asked why, he said, ‘I can’t see your face. You look like you might have been up to something.’”
Trying not to escalate the situation, the 6-foot, 4-inch Buckner nodded and went home. But he grew increasingly upset. “It woke me up in the middle of the night, and I said this is not OK,” said Buckner. “I thought about all of the millions of Black men around the country being told they have to wear masks. We are extremely apprehensive about the masks, even though we know it’s the right thing to do.”
Buckner was reluctant to start a battle with his police department and mayor, but he took to Twitter with his story, he said, because the incident had left him heartsick. “COVID will not break us,” he tweeted. “It will only reveal to us what is already broken.”
Similar incidents are occurring around the country. In Florida, a Black University of Miami physician, Armen Henderson, part of a team volunteering to help test homeless people for the coronavirus, was arrested while wearing a mask as he unloaded supplies from his van into his front yard.
Two masked young Black men shopping in a Walmart in Wood River, Ill., posted a video that went viral of a police officer, hand on his weapon, ushering them out of the store after telling them their masks were illegal. “This police officer just put us out for wearing masks, trying to stay safe,” they said as they left the store. (Wood River Police Chief Brad Wells later admitted the officer had been wrong and said he supports the wearing of face masks.)
“The first assumption wasn’t these are people protecting themselves and others around them from the virus, it was the assumption of stealing or some ill will,” said Mays. “There is a quick judgment of what Black men are ‘up to.’”
Many in the Black community have taken to social media with their concerns about wearing masks in public. Used to toning down their appearances to lower suspicion, wearing college T-shirts when they run, and “dressing like prospects, not suspects,” many immediately considered mask choices that might be safer and allow them to return home from their grocery store trips or — mindful of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery — jog through the neighborhood alive.
“New mask is floral. Don’t shoot,” tweeted @KieseLaymon. “Handmade white masks will—hopefully—wrap us in cloud-like innocence,” DrewBreez wrote in Medium. Mothers, like @kim_hohman, tweeted their fear: “Is it safer for my son to risk COVID than to risk being seen as a tall Black man in a mask?” Aaron Thomas, a Black man from Ohio who chose not to wear a mask, may have put it best, writing, “I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive.”
In some cases, Black people are also targeted for not wearing masks. A Black man in Philadelphia was pulled off a bus by seven police officers for not wearing one. After a video of the incident went viral, the SEPTA transit authority admitted it had done a poor job notifying the public about the requirement and said masks were no longer required.
Such incidents spurred six U.S. senators, including Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), to send a letter asking the Department of Justice and the FBI to provide bias training to law enforcement officers during the pandemic.
Mays said leaders need to acknowledge that the targeting of Black men wearing masks clearly stems from racism, as do numerous other issues in the response to the pandemic, from the lack of systematic data collection on the race of those infected by the coronavirus to the inability to quickly get PPE to essential workers of color. “People were making masks and buying masks for health care workers, but they didn’t give those things to the janitors cleaning up. They didn’t give those things to the bus drivers,” she said.
Mays advises Black men to wear masks, and suggests they not be dark colors or “ominous looking,” but perhaps made from bright colors or traditional African prints. She notes that professionally sewn masks can be expensive and says masks are another commodity, like food, water, and virus testing, that health officials are not quickly getting to minority communities that need them. “Why isn’t the city or county thinking about going into these communities and passing out masks for free?” she asked.
Despite his experience, Buckner said he is still going to wear a mask — in part to protect his father, who has risk factors making him more vulnerable to Covid-19. The issue around masks heightens the anxiety Buckner already feels about the coronavirus, the sadness he accepts about having been profiled his entire life, and the fear he feels as his young nephews negotiate the world, the pandemic, and local police.
None of the issues the Black community is facing because of the virus, he said, can be separated from the police violence many Americans are now protesting despite the risk of infection. “There are some people, and I represent many of them, for whom Covid is not the scariest thing in their lives,” he said. “We’ve got to listen to them.”