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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.”

  • The decision is being taken from them to some extent. Just this saw an article this morning about “law enforcement” confiscating masks destined to be given out at protests. It was a Huffpost post.

  • I am white, and I agree the “mask” presents an un-fair dilemma for black men in the US. Police officers very obviously need bias training – and “political correctness” training : NO room for judging or assuming based on skin color. As black men (and women) realize the (wrong) bias, they too need to adapt: dress and behave with more class, and by all means do NOT offend or fend off when accosted by police. They ARE doing their job. Don’t fight, spit, throw, run, swear, protest – take the UPPER hand and be better than the police officer. From what I read in the article: it works.

    • As former police officer I can tell you first hand we get training for dealing with the public but we don’t practice what we learn.The senior officers in the field tell us to forget what we learned in those B.S. classes. Those classes will get you killed in the real world. I’ll teach you everything you need to know to be a real police officer. I stuck around for about 2 years and I had enough.We were literally doing the opposite of what the classes taught us. I can see that we were pissing a lot of people we come in contact with on a daily basis and my partner would relish in it. He ended up getting killed in a “redneck bar” shooting off his mouth about the antics he pulled on people. One of the guys he falsely arrested and sent to prison was in the bar that night and shot him dead. Nobody in the bar saw anything and the case remains unsolved til this day.
      Long story short, if you’re black certain cops will antagonize you to the point where they would arrest you something or kill you and most times they’ll get away with it. That’s why I quit that police department. It doesn’t pay to be a whistle blower unless you wanna end up blackballed or run out of town. So I voluntarily got out of that down and hadn’t been back since.

  • since 2019, there were 10 unarmed black people killed, there were 19 unarmed white people killed in this period by cops. Since 2018, there were 7564 black people killed by other black people. Where is the outrage when thousands of black people die each year by other blacks? Crickets. These are facts, this new movement is complete bullshit. Stupid white guilt people are being brainwashed by Oblama and professors. I do agree the Minn vops are guilty and should get convicted big time but this other genocide horse shit is hyperbolic at its highest and phony.

    • There is a difference in being killed by a thug/crook and being killed by the police. Yes, in both cases, the person is dead. The first death is treated as criminal activity whereas the latter creeps toward totalitarianism.

      Not quite comparable but folks have a different feeling when remembering the souls lost in war regardless of whether the dead were defenders or invaders. The souls lost to the Nazi’s evokes a different feeling. In both cases, the person is dead but it is not the same.

      Yes, crime needs to be reduced/prevented but trying to equate Nazi killings to battlefield loss when countries are invaded is not quite valid. Give it a thought.

    • You seem to ignore white on white murders. Don’t act like it’s just blacks killing each other at an alarming rate. Just because it’s not big news in the media, the same thing is happening in the white race as well. When you look at the world with divisive eyes you repeat divisive quotes without asking the question why are blacks killing each other? Part of the answer is contained in this article. Things we take for granted like wearing a mask to ward off the Corona Virus, many blacks are arrested for that and end up losing their jobs. So they end up committing crimes just to survive and end up going to prison. And a lot them give up hope and end up joining gangs. It’s a vicious cycle for blacks who don’t have hope.

    • Stop blaming Obama and swaying from the topic. People like you always see the need to bring in Obama who IMHO have more class, intelligent, and loyalty to the American people than bunker boy Trump. There is no question that no president in the history of the U.S loves to play the race card more than Trump. His limited vocabulary, habitual lying, inconsistency, and low IQ level are reflections of his voters. He set the standard for U.S president so extremely low it is actually an embarassment but guys like you won’t see it.

      But let’s talk about race because this is what it is about. Anyone who claim they are not racist is a liar. Everyone is racist and the blacks are no more racist than a white person or Asian or middle eastern. As a Chinese I have my share of racism experience from everyone including from other Asians growing up and with the COVID19 it is ongoing and it’s plenty. Let’s dumb this whole thing down because discussions like this revolves around race.

      So the blacks thought this whole policing incident is about race. Assuming they are correct then let’s take a step back and take everything at face value. I want to see the comparison of crimes to a white person done by blacks and vice versa in North America.

      In fact, as of late I have seen more racism in the news done to Asian by every other race versus discrimation against blacks.

      As for your argument of how easy it is for blacks to lose hope and join gangs is discountable. How many Asians have you met who came to North America with nothing for a better life and made something out of themselves? I have met a lot of Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotians, Indians, Sri Lankans, and Filipinos who came with nothing and managed to live a working life owning a house and being able to send their children for better education. Some of the people I knew were Vietnam war refugees and came here with $10 in their pocket. If you get to talk about their life journey you will learn the detail is probably too gross, depressing, and heart wrenching than the most violent movies the average white person sees in the theatre. The question is what is it so difficult in being black that other ethnic groups in the same class are experiencing?

      As far as I am concerned if your native tongue is English you’re already far ahead from a lot of people in North America and Europe. Given a scenario where if a black person applied for the same job I am applying for with the same qualification that I have I think they may be in a better advantage because of their English fluency. I don’t see where the problem is.

  • I am very tired of being lectured and patronized by a Progressive narrative based on the concept of “White Privilege”. This idea was hatched by a bunch of White, Ivy-league professors who can’t seem to get over the guilt of being born with an evil lack of melanin in their skin. How this is less racist than the societal oppressions it claims to fight eludes me.
    I Live in Minnesota. I want Officer Chauvin to be prosecuted and imprisoned, not because of the race of the victim but because of his conduct. (Funny, I remember no such outcry when a Black, Muslim Officer Noor gunned down a n innocent White woman who came up to his squad car after she reported a sexual assault.) I am all for peaceful protest. I am in no way supportive of an anarchist group systematically dismantling cities through arson, assault, looting, and the actual death of police officers who were out there protecting the people who “need a voice.” About what, exactly? Who out there disagrees with prosecuting this cop who committed homicide?
    I lived in the MPLS neighborhood that was utterly decimated by a rabid mob that cared little about Floyd, their Black neighbors, the future of their city nor actual “justice.” They cared about grabbing as much loot as they could and creating as much havoc as possible. You are probably too young to remember the 60’s. It was as much about overthrowing Capitalism then as it is now, but Howard Zinn has been grooming Useful Idiots for this for decades now. The former police captain in St. Louis, age 77, was gunned down while protecting a store owner. His murder was live streamed on Facebook. Does his Black life matter? No, because it doesn’t fit the destructive narrative of the Left—which has been in charge of Minneapolis nearly as long as I can remember.
    Don’t bother replying. I’m no longer a subscriber.
    PS check the FBI stats. They don’t support the false narrative that Black people are targeted more than anyone else, but I guess it’s all about feelings, not facts.

    • Racism isn’t real in America?…. Ever hear of a white family moving into a black neighborhood? Oh, racist Lisa, forgot to mention… I’m white as Finnish snow. You probably consider me a race traitor, which is fine. You probably consider yourself not racist which is fine. A lie, but fine. Racists do tend to capitalize their races/ethnicities.

      I understand though. The truth is, all white people have been racist. Myself included. Not the shout hurtful words kind, not racism held in my heart. Even worse. It has invaded our subconscious. I have caught myself walking across the street simply because some young, black men in hoodies were walking towards me on the sidewalk, and noticed EVERYONE was doing the same thing. Almost every aspect of our culture is dripping with racism towards black people. I stopped watching cop shows and local news, switched back to print news. It helps, but you have to keep watch on yourself. America turned me into a racist, and I hate America and myself for that.

      Oh, before you start throwing the “not a patriot” crap around, 20 years serving the US overseas and a 3rd degree burn over half my leg from it. People like you make me sick. I may have evil in parts of me, but I work at it. Can you truly say the same, White Saint Lisa?

  • “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t” –unknown. But most assuredly you are wrong. SMH

  • “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t” –unknown. But most assuredly you are wrong.

  • The writer and publisher of this article is stoking an already volatile situation. I’m sitting in my bedroom, in what WAS a nice Dallas suburb, until the rioting started. Your words are fueling more anger and articles like this along with comments from Mainstream Media are causing civil unrest. I am from a diverse (mixed family) and I don’t appreciate the carelessness of this article .. at this time. WORDS MATTER and yours will most likely cost lives.

    • “The writer and publisher of this article is stoking an already volatile situation”
      “Your words are fueling more anger”

      What in the world?

      It seems merely giving a perspective about what’s going on in black males’ lives TRYING TO WEAR MASKS during these times “will most likely cost lives”?

      This world is truly sick.

    • If all you took from this article was how your life is being impacted by society’s response to undeniable and persistent racism, then this is a prime example of privilege in effect. I don’t are how diverse your family is. Perhaps you have an empathy issue. These issues are the result of deep seated racism in segments of society that are allowed a degree of control they should not have. The author is not endorsing riots nor is that author advocating violence. These are facts..if you don’t like them, go read something else.

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