Two black men say they were kicked out of Walmart for wearing protective masks. Others worry it will happen to them.
Kip Diggs glanced at his reflection in the rearview mirror before heading into the grocery store: a baby-blue bandanna — matching his University of North Carolina baseball cap — masked his nose, mouth and salt-and-pepper beard.
The 53-year-old Nashville marketing consultant had chosen his face covering carefully for his trip to Kroger on Sunday, his first outing since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines advising Americans to cover their faces to slow the spread of covid-19.
“As an African American man, I have to be cognizant of the things I do and where I go, so appearances matter,” Diggs said. “I have pink, lime green, Carolina blue so I don’t look menacing. I want to take a lot of that stigma and risk out as best I can.”
A recent report of a police officer following young black men who wore masks while shopping has amplified fears among people of color of being profiled as criminals or gang members. Civil rights leaders, politicians and community activists worry that concerns of racial bias will discourage black people from wearing masks to protect themselves and others, further increasing their exposure to a virus that is disproportionately infecting and killing African Americans.
“This is a powder keg waiting to take shape. And that is the last thing we need dealing with this pandemic,” said Hardie Davis Jr., mayor of Augusta, Ga., and president of the African American Mayors Association, citing high rates of infection among black residents in cities including Chicago and Detroit, as well as parts of rural Georgia such as Albany. His association plans to release recommendations this week on how best to communicate CDC guidelines to the black community.
“The inherent biases that we persistently deal with in America are real. We cannot diminish them,” Davis said. “It’s one thing for someone white to walk into a store with a mask on; it’s another thing for folks who are black and brown.”
In Wood River, Ill., two black men wearing surgical masks recorded themselves being followed by a police officer as they left a Walmart last month.
“He just followed us from outside, told us that we cannot wear masks,” one of the men said in the video, posted on YouTube on March 18, which shows the officer walking behind the pair with a hand resting on his gun. “The coronavirus is real. This police officer just put us out for wearing masks and trying to be safe.”
The Washington Post could not reach the men for comment, but they described the encounter to the local newspaper as “terrifying” and said they felt the officer was stalking them as if they were “prey.”
Wood River Police Chief Brad Wells told The Post the incident is being investigated internally, with the assistance of the local NAACP branch, after the video drew more than 175,000 views.
Wells said the officer approached the men outside the Walmart on March 15 because he “believed the two individuals to be acting suspiciously.” The officer asked for their identification and erroneously told them that city ordinance prohibited the wearing of masks, Wells said.
“This statement was incorrect and should not have been made,” Wells said in a written statement. “The city does not have such an ordinance prohibiting the wearing of a mask. In fact, I support the wearing of a nonsurgical mask or face covering when in public during the COVID-19 pandemic period.”
Wells said the men refused to reveal their identities and “left the store of their own volition.”
A Walmart spokesman said the company welcomes whatever measures customers deem appropriate to protect their health during this time.
But Teresa Haley, president of the NAACP’s Illinois conference, called the episode racial profiling and warned that similar incidents would proliferate as more people head out in public wearing homemade face coverings.
“Next they are going to say that they thought you were going to rob something or they feared for their life,” Haley said. “It’s going to lead to a bigger problem. It used to be driving while black, walking while black and now it’s this other thing — wearing a mask while black. These are conversations we need to be having.”
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.
Michael Jeffries, a Wellesley College sociologist whose work focuses on racism and culture, said the inflamed racial politics in this country make it difficult for the government to expect universal compliance with any health guidance. Racism was intensified when the pandemic started, he said, initially against Asian Americans who were viewed with suspicion for wearing masks and assumed to be a source of foreign contagion.
“Black folks can’t even wear hooded sweatshirts without being accused of being criminals,” said Jeffries, referring to the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida by a neighborhood watchman. “To issue guidance like this without any historical awareness — especially given recent and traumatic history — it’s going to be hard for people to follow that advice, considering the consequences, which are literally deadly.”
Stereotypes, such as the assumption of black criminality, are often intensified and calcified in times of crisis and trauma, Jeffries said. African Americans scavenging for food and supplies after Hurricane Katrina were labeled looters, he noted, while white Americans doing the same thing were called victims.
“The combination of race and the history of racist policing — all of this is swirling around to make this a very fraught situation,” Jeffries said.
In Little Rock, Ark., the Rev. Cory Anderson, chief innovation officer for the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, wore a mask made by his wife’s colleague on a recent run to Walgreens. The black mask was adorned with white lettering saying, “Prince of Peace,” “Lamb of God” and “King of Kings,” but that nod to Jesus offered little comfort for the Baptist preacher.
“At one point I looked in my car mirror and I had the mask on, which was black, and a hoodie on, which was black, and I thought, ‘Okay, this is not necessarily a good look,’” said Anderson, 50. He decided to remove his hood, he said, “because it felt like it was too much, from a visual standpoint.”
“My unease at getting out and walking around in public like that is really a symptom of a bigger issue that our country has with criminalizing people of color,” Anderson said.
He worries that as local communities tighten their coronavirus lockdowns, low-income black neighborhoods will come into increased contact with law enforcement, with tragic consequences.
But those results are not inevitable, he said, if police and community leaders are more intentional about reaching out to black and brown communities to support them rather than punish them. “There should be people reassuring us that it’s okay to go out with a mask on,” Anderson said. “Black and brown people shouldn’t be afraid to wear masks, and they should have access to them.”
In New York City, where more than 4,000 people have died of the coronavirus, Regina McRae fears for the lives of her nephews and young black men in her Harlem neighborhood who do not want to wear masks because “they know it will invite problems.”
“There is already a war on young black men, and this is another piece of ammunition in their arsenal,” said the 64-year-old owner of a custom cake shop. “Store owners will use it as an excuse not to let them in — masks and gloves, you must be here to rob the place! Unfortunately, with our skin color, we never have the presumption of innocence. And in times like this, that racism becomes more prevalent.”
Rashad Robinson, executive director of racial justice organization Color of Change, said the government should have taken measures to alleviate the anxieties of black people about wearing masks.
Although he now climbs the stairs to his 17th floor Upper West Side apartment — bypassing the makeshift memorial to residents who have died — instead of risking pressing a contaminated button in the elevator, he admits he is wary of wearing the mask he ordered over the weekend.
“For black people whose behaviors and interactions and belonging in public spaces are constantly being policed and tracked — to lay that over with covering our faces with masks is concerning,” said Robinson, who was stopped and frisked by New York police in 2007. “The government needs to work extra hard to ensure that keeping ourselves safe does not make us a target in other ways.”
But the possibility of contracting the coronavirus, for some, outweighs the potential of being racially profiled by businesses and police.
In Atlanta, Art Fennell, a 59-year-old documentary filmmaker, went to his bank on Monday to deposit $306.23 in coins that he had saved for a year and recently found time to sort and roll because he was bored at home. He said he was more fearful of the potential consequences of stepping out in public without a mask.
So he stood outside in what he described as a surreal experience — waiting 20 minutes for his turn to be ushered inside.
“Then it hit me that this is clearly a different day and time that we are in,” Fennell said. “Here I am, a black man in a bank, wearing a mask and sunglasses and a hat and gloves, and the teller said, ‘Welcome to Wells Fargo. Please come in.’”