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For Black Americans, Following CDC Mask Guidelines Can Be A Fraught Decision

A subway customer walks a sparsely populated 42nd Street Times Square platform while covering his face due to coronavirus concerns in New York.
John Minchillo
A subway customer walks a sparsely populated 42nd Street Times Square platform while covering his face due to coronavirus concerns in New York.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine isn't requiring Ohioans to wear masks when in public, but says he will wear one and he strongly encourages everyone else do the same. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend wearing a face covering to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. That idea is making some African Americans, especially Black men, uncomfortable.

Aaron Thomas of Columbus, Ohio, tweeted about his discomfort April 4. "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."

Thomas had been planning a trip to the grocery and considering what precautions he should take to keep himself safe, like wearing a mask. He remembered he had some bandanas from kickball. Great, he could turn one into a face mask, he thought. But the more he thought about it, the more uncomfortable he became with the idea of, as a Black man, walking into a store with his face covered, and the more dangerous it seemed.

"I was going to be uncomfortable going into the store not knowing what was going to wait for me in the store with my face covered up," he says.

The next day he had an op-ed published in The Boston Globe and The Guardian.

"I completely trust in the advice to cover your face," Thomas tells WVXU, "but it has to be crystal clear what is on my face and why. I don't want any room for interpretation or confusion."

For Thomas, that means a medical or surgical mask - if he can get one - is fine. But all other suggestions like scarves, bandanas and recommendations by the CDC and others for most homemade masks are out. He says he's received a lot of positive response to his tweets and op-ed, including offers to send medical masks and home-sewn masks that he deems safe.

Rodney Coates, professor of critical race and ethnic studies at Miami University, says the wearing of face masks, like everything in America, has to be viewed through the lens of race, class, gender and history.

"Let's be real about it. We have this long history of fear of Black men," he points out. "And fear of Black men in public places has historically been one that has caused anxiety on the part of both Blacks but more so in terms of whites. I say 'more so' because it's their response that in many cases Black men and Black women are responding to."

Coates points to incidents where Black men and boys have been targeted for wearing hooded sweatshirts and face coverings. "We're not that far away from Trayvon (Martin) who simply because he is wearing a hood is perceived as being dangerous and is killed. And the courts ruled, by the way, that it was justifiable."

He says he's especially concerned because everyone has higher stress and anxiety levels right now. White people are under stress, which can heighten or amplify implicit biases, triggers and reactions to Black men. Add on top of that, Blacks and Black males being encouraged to do something that could put them in jeopardy, and at a time when gun sales are at the highest one-month level ever in America, and their stress becomes even higher. Coates calls it a "perfect storm."

"My biggest concern is that ... on the one hand, we've got people that are cooped up in their homes that are already fearful about coronavirus. Second, the perfect storm with guns. Third, their fears, biggest fears, worst fears of being confronted by Black men with masks. That's almost like a perfect storm."

These fears aren't unfounded. The United States has a long history of making assumptions and passing judgments on African Americans based on doing something like wearing a mask or face covering. Bandanas - one of the more popular at-home mask fabric suggestions - are especially fraught, CNN points out, because of the association with gang activity. The practice of racial profiling is also well established.

"The issue to me is not the Black response to this. The issue to me is the white response," Coates says. "There's been a continual dismissal by whites of Black and Brown and gendered insecurities and anxieties. There's this typical response: 'Oh, it can't be that bad.' It's not 'that bad' until you are faced with dealing with other people's responses to you for doing and being you."

To put it another way, don't tell someone who has been bitten by a dog not to be afraid of dogs. Of course that person is going to be concerned.

"This issue is the response of whites and getting whites to feel comfortable around Blacks. So to tell me that I should not be concerned about being bit by this racist, rabid dog when history has demonstrated that this racist, rabid dog is primed to attack me? No. I'm going to be cautiously aware while I'm in these settings."

Aaron Thomas also wants people to be more conscientious of how they treat others in their communities.

"I don't trust other people's biases. I don't trust that folks will use common sense during this national time of crisis. I think people are still going to hold on to their fears and prearranged beliefs about Black people, people of color, in public places.

"My hope is that people will begin to implore some deep thought and deep common sense about how they treat people in their communities and the people they interact with out in public," he says.

More At Risk

African Americans are making this decision at a time when some Black communities across the country are experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths. In Ohio, The US Census Bureau estimates the population is nearly 82% white and 13% Black. But the Ohio Department of Health says 61% of those who have died of COVID-19 were white, 10% Black. Health Director Dr. Amy Acton notes that data may be incomplete as some people opted not to release that information.

In late March several organizations in Hamilton County - including The Center for Closing the Health Gap, NAACP, African American Chamber of Commerce and the Urban League - created a website aimed at reaching underserved populations.

"Users can find everything from the most critical health updates about testing, urgent care and medications to news about unemployment, job openings, volunteering and advocacy," WVXU's Ann Thompson reports.

Health Gap President and CEO Renee Mahaffey Harris says there's no easy answer for people who are questioning whether to wear a mask in public. The Health Gap, she says, is focusing on making sure everyone has access to sound information and resources.

She points out the reason for the disparate outcomes beginning to show across the country are rooted in health disparities that have persisted for decades.

"These disparities or gaps in health outcomes have more to do with quality of life and lifestyle. What's bearing out in the data now is just systematic of the data that has always existed, which is your quality of life factors from where you live affecting how long you live to whether or not you live in an environment that has access to the healthy things you need, like good housing."

COVID-19 attacks the lungs and respiratory system, making people with underlying conditions and other problems like hypertension, diabetes and conditions that disproportionately affect Black Americans extra vulnerable.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Most recently, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She served on the Ohio Associated Press Broadcasters Board of Directors from 2007 - 2009.