For Black Men, Fear That Masks Will Invite Racial Profiling


By Derrick Bryson Taylor, April 14, 2020

African-American men worry that following the C.D.C. recommendation to cover their faces in public could expose them to harassment from the police.

As the coronavirus spreads, black men face two concerns: the virus and those who see their covered faces as threatening.Credit...Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

When Allen Hargrove leaves his Brooklyn apartment to get groceries, he does so with an underlying feeling of worry. It’s not just the coronavirus pandemic: As a black man, he fears he could draw unwanted attention by wearing a mask in public.

“I have a sense of anxiety wearing the mask,” said Mr. Hargrove, 33, who described himself as having a “football build,” at 220 pounds. “It makes me more aware of how I’m being perceived.”

Mr. Hargrove is not alone. As the coronavirus continues to spread, infecting and killing African-Americans at disproportionately high rates, black men find themselves facing two concerns: the virus and those who see their covered faces as threatening.

In the days since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged all Americans to wear a cloth face covering when they leave their homes, black men have expressed concern that following the recommendation could expose them to racial profiling and harassment by the police.

A day after the C.D.C.’s announcement on April 3, Aaron Thomas, who lives in Ohio, said on Twitter that he did not feel safe wearing a handkerchief or anything else over his nose and mouth that “isn’t clearly a protective mask” because he is black. “I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive,” he wrote in the message, which has been retweeted more than 17,000 times. I don’t feel safe wearing a handkerchief or something else that isn’t CLEARLY a protective mask covering my face to the store because I am a Black man living in this world. I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive.

Mr. Hargrove, who works in a shop that rents audiovisual equipment, received an N95 respirator mask through his job before nonessential businesses were ordered to close. He has vowed to wear it, no matter how he might be perceived in public.

Wearing the mask “makes me a 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,” Mr. Hargrove said. “It makes me feel a little uncomfortable at times.”

[RACE AND THE CORONAVIRUS: An African-American doctor who was testing homeless people in Miami was handcuffed by the police.]

In March, before the C.D.C. issued its recommendation, two black men in surgical masks filmed themselves as a police officer was kicking them out of a Walmart in Wood River, Ill. In the video, which has been viewed more than 250,000 times on YouTube, the officer can be seen following them.

“He just followed us from outside, told us that we cannot wear masks,” one of the men says. “This police officer just put us out for wearing masks and trying to stay safe.”

Chief Brad Wells of the Wood River police said in a news release that the officer in the video “incorrectly” told the men that a city ordinance prohibited masks.

“This statement was incorrect and should not have been made,” Chief Wells said. “In fact, I support the wearing of a nonsurgical mask or face covering when in public during the Covid-19 pandemic period.” The men have since filed a complaint, and an internal investigation is underway.

The video received widespread attention, including in Atlanta, where Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on Twitter that she was “appalled” by the incident. She said she had signed an order directing the Atlanta police not to enforce a state law that prohibits the wearing of face masks in public. The order, which expires after 60 days, ensures that people who are complying with the C.D.C.’s recommendation are able to do so without fear of citation or arrest.

Nikema Williams, a Georgia state senator, wrote a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday asking him to temporarily suspend the state’s mask law. While she is recovering from Covid-19, her husband, Leslie Small, has been doing their shopping. Both are African-American. Ms. Williams said that Mr. Small, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs about 300 pounds, “was telling me how uncomfortable it was to wear a mask in stores because folks get intimidated and look at him like he’s up to no good.”

The N.A.A.C.P. is calling on states to indefinitely suspend their mask laws. “No person should be fearful of engaging in lifesaving measures due to racialism,” Marc Banks, the group’s national press secretary, said in a statement.

The coronavirus pandemic arrived after years of raw video footage of unarmed African-Americans being shot or beaten by police officers gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. A 2019 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that African-Americans, and black men in particular, were much more likely than their white peers to be killed by the police.

It is unclear how many profiling incidents there have been since the C.D.C. issued its recommendation earlier this month. Melanye Price, a political-science professor at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university in Texas, said the pandemic and the C.D.C.’s mask recommendation, however well-intentioned, could put African-Americans at greater risk.

“I think in the end we are asking a lot from people who are asked to be safe by putting these masks or bandannas on,” Ms. Price said. “If somebody called the police on them, they could lose their life over policing before the coronavirus could ever get to them.”

Kevin Gaines, the Julian Bond professor of civil rights and social justice at the University of Virginia, said the recent episodes of racial profiling were not surprising.

“Black people are profiled by police on a regular basis,” Mr. Gaines said. “And actually, the problem, at least recently, has become even larger than that.”