Commentary

COVID-19 is a health crisis. So is wearing a pandemic mask while black.

June 5, 2020 3:17 pm

Photo credit iStock / Getty Images Plus

It is terrifying to be a Black boy and man in America. During the global pandemic, as a Black man trying to protect himself, a mask on my face adds to the fear, despite our leaders’ cognitive dissonance.

In the pre-pandemic world, security guards and store employees followed me in stores. Also, police officers have stopped me a block away from home in a predominantly white neighborhood to ask me what I was doing in the area.  

Black men and women in America strategize how to maintain their mental health.  I’ve normalized such incidents in order to survive. Since my teenage years as a Black American, I have compared police stop survival stories with other men of color. Each of their stories taught me other ways to maintain my mental health and survive.  

I didn’t want to expect law enforcement to target black people wearing protective masks simply because they are Black, but we’ve seen that happen.

On April 10, in a Dominican neighborhood of Miami, Dr. Armen Henderson was wearing a protective mask as he prepared his van for a volunteer shift testing the Miami homeless population for COVID-19 as his wife and their children sat on the front porch. A police officer driving by stopped Dr. Henderson for allegedly littering in front of his home – simply put, a black male is robbing a van. The police officer, not wearing a mask or gloves, detained Dr. Henderson and asked for his identification (). 

His wife asked the officer why her husband was in handcuffs. He told her that Dr. Anderson gave him an attitude. The police officer said he had to see one of their IDs. She ran into the house and returned, handing him hers. The officer released Dr. Henderson without penalty.

During a traffic stop or when stopped and questioned while walking, black men know there is a fragile line between survival and death. Ultimately, it may depend on the police officer’s biases or mood.

Dr. Henderson isn’t alone in being targeted for wearing a mask while black. In Illinois, a viral video recorded a white security officer escorting two black men shopping at Walmart out of the store for no reason other than they were black men following public health recommendations. 

At the same time, predominantly white protesters infiltrated state capitols both here and across the country, ignoring stay-at-home orders and public health measures. They flaunted their white privilege, spewing racial slurs and derogatory comments at counter-protesters – nurses wearing masks. 

Gov. Doug Ducey warned the public that offenders who defy the stay-at-home order might receive a class 1 misdemeanor, a $2,500 fine and up to six months in jail. The word “might” obviously might only apply to white protesters. In response to hundreds of protesters who crammed into the Capitol, Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said the governor “appreciate(s) the passion expressed by Arizonans and shares “their desire to get back normal as quickly as possible.” 

Contrast that to the response to protests in the past week in the wake of police officers murdering George Floyd. Those protests, predominantly made up of people of color fighting for the rights of people of color, have been met with violence from militarized law enforcement. A Texas attorney has catalogued and tweeted more than 300 separate incidents of police attacking peaceful protesters and bystanders with tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, riot shields and more.

And while Ducey praised “the passion” of the almost exclusively white (and armed) demonstrators who violated his public health executive order to crowd into the Arizona Capitol in protest, he passed a statewide curfew and mobilized the National Guard to hamper protests for George Floyd and Dion Johnson because Scottsdale police fell down on the job and let a riot – one that was planned in the light of day on social media – turn into looting at Scottsdale Fashion Square mall.

Let’s be clear: I do not think the mask is the main issue. It is the color of the face behind the mask. The mask adds a layer of fear for police officers and white people that can lead black people to prison or death. Research has found that 1 out of 3 black males will experience incarceration, that they are more likely to experience excessive force by the police and a police officer kills 1 out of 1,000 black men and boys

To survive the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential for me to see myself through the eyes of police officers and white vigilantes, because wearing a mask and my actual black face makes me a suspect.

Consequently, I understand how my worth is measured by a world that looks at black men and boys as invisible, as deviant for wearing a hooded sweatshirt, as criminal for wearing a protective mask and as expendable like George Floyd.

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Rashaad Thomas
Rashaad Thomas

Rashaad Thomas is a United States Air Force Veteran, freelance writer and poet who lives in south Phoenix. He was named Best Poet by Phoenix New Times in 2019. His work can be found in the book "Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: Writing Wrong," The Rumpus, Heart Journal Online, Columbia Poetry Review and others.

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