Coronavirus: Some fear wearing masks could lead to profiling

Many people are wearing masks and makeshift face coverings to slow the spread of the coronavirus — but some black Americans, particularly some men, said they are nervous about the recommendation.

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Their trepidation comes from fear of being racially profiled while wearing a mask, they said, and being mistaken for a criminal.

Dayton resident Chris Carlisle said he worries about being profiled whenever he wears his protective mask in public.

“I was telling my wife the other day, ‘What’s going to distinguish us, when they reopen all stores and everybody’s going in with masks and there’s a robbery, what’s going to distinguish us from the robbers?’” he said.

No known recent cases of Dayton police officers profiling people who wear face coverings have been reported.

Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl isn’t a proponent of racial profiling and said the public and officers’ safety are of the utmost importance.

He also said the reality is that covering the majority of a person’s face might hinder important communication and expression between officers and citizens. Critical information can be obtained from facial expressions, such as the ability to detect stress, and that can be lost when one or both parties are wearing masks.

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“Our officers also expect to see many, if not a majority of people who they interact with, wearing a mask on their face,” he said. “While this is an adjustment in our culture, it should not change the fundamental way our officers police.”

Reggie “Moon” Morgan, a Dayton area resident and musician, has been wearing bandanas over his face while on stage for the past 15 years. So he’s not concerned about being profiled in the Dayton area. Morgan wore a surgical mask while standing in line to enter the Trotwood Lowes store one afternoon last week.

He said he might have second thoughts about wearing his protective mask in certain area suburbs or large cities such as Los Angeles or New York.

Some black men in the Dayton area said they wear masks to slow the spread of the virus while also trying not to look threatening. Steve Hankle, a University of Dayton music professor who is black, wears a homemade mask when he goes grocery shopping. He also puts on a pair of headphones to put other shoppers at ease, he said, noting that he’s also conscious about the way he dresses.

A 2019 National Academy of Sciences study found Blacks and American Indians are significantly more likely than whites to die at the hands of officers. Latino men are also likely to be killed by police than white men, according to the researchers.

The possibility of being racially profiled while wearing a mask should not discourage anyone from taking protective measures against the deadly virus, said Liza Abram Benham, a political science professor at Central State University, and La Fleur Small, a Wright State University sociology professor.

COVID-19 has killed more than 61,000 people in the United States, and blacks are disproportionately affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among states with more than 100 coronavirus-related deaths, the mortality rate for blacks is nearly 19%, although they make up 13% of the population, according to CDC data.

RELATED: Coronavirus: Black death rates disproportionate

In Ohio, 24% of the state’s COVID-19-related deaths are black Americans, although they make up 14% of the population, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

The disparities in the death rate can be attributed to several underlying factors that have historically plagued the black community, said Dr. Karen Mathews, executive director of health and psychological services at Central State University. The factors include limited access to health-care, living conditions, socio-economic conditions and chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, hypertension and lung and heart diseases, she said.

Small understands why Hankle and others would dress a certain way to put others at ease.

“Artifacts and uniforms culturally convey meaning,” she said. “These meanings are culturally shared and can differ across cultures, but we all practice anticipatory socialization — often including uniform — to convey a certain meaning and gain cultural acceptance. A suit for a business man, scrubs for a physician, and clothing and accessories for a black male who, when wearing a mask, is aware of implicit bias and wants to evade potential harm.”

Face coverings have not historically been accepted in American society, even if it was worn for religious and cultural reasons, Small said. Unless there is a specific reason why a person’s face is covered, she said they are likely to face scrutiny because it’s difficult to read an individual’s facial expressions, see their eyes and the like.

Some groups such as Muslims and black men who cover their faces tend to experience a heightened negative social response that’s likely influenced by implicit bias, she said. There’s a false notion that they’re more inclined to be violent than those who are not brown or black, Small said.

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Some stories of police profiling black men who wore protective masks have been reported in cities such as New York and Wood River, Ill. In the Wood River incident, the men posted a YouTube video of themselves being escorted out of a store by a white officer.

The Wood River police chief later released a statement saying the incident was under investigation and the officer was incorrect in saying the city has an ordinance prohibiting people from wearing masks. The chief also encouraged people to wear masks to protect themselves against COVID-19.

Former presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker recently joined four other senators in demanding that the Department of Justice and the FBI implement anti-bias training for law enforcement officials amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to media reports.

Benham is optimistic that racial profiling and other injustices based on misconceptions about black people will end some day, she said. In quoting slain Civil Right leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Benham said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

“(Justice) is all we are asking for,” she said. “We are not asking for special treatment, we are simply asking not to be singled out for negative treatment.”

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