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For some black Americans, anxiety about wearing face coverings in public may keep them from doing so

A man passes a shuttered movie theater last month in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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The recommendation from the White House that Americans wear cloth face coverings is causing concerns among those who fear that doing so could expose some people of color to other kinds of threats.

On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the government provides information on how to wear face coverings.

“CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

And there is a section called “bandanna face covering.”

This is prompting worry, particularly among black Americans, some of whom fear that they could be mistaken for individuals involved in gang activity or otherwise treated with suspicion while they try to observe best practices in public. Bandannas have long been associated with violent gangs across America’s inner cities. Different gangs have historically worn colored bandannas to communicate their allegiance, to rival gangs as well as fellow gang members.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh are among the politicians who have recommended that Americans use bandannas to protect themselves.

But not all of those in public office agree.

Shannon Hardin, City Council president in Columbus, Ohio, tweeted Monday: “While I encourage folks to follow the guidelines of the CDC, children of color must be prepared for the bias they will face outside their home.”

Black Americans reacting to the recommendation have suggested that by walking in public spaces with their faces covered they could be mistaken for gang members, attract unwanted attention from the police, have other citizens call the police on them or be racially profiled in general.

Kalen Allen, an Internet personality who works on “Ellen,” took to Twitter to share his trepidation.

Author Austin Channing Brown, who often writes about race and society, expressed her worries about the decision.

“I’m really concerned about Black people walking around with scarves, bandanas, etc. wrapped around their faces to protect from COVID but being deemed suspicious or dangerous because of those precautions,” she tweeted.

The past several years have brought increased attention to racial profiling of black Americans by police officers or other citizens assuming the worst. Stories of black people who have had the police called on them because they “fit the description” of someone involved in criminal activity have gone viral.

And individuals who were suspected of criminal activity based on their appearance, including Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was killed by police while carrying a toy gun, have suffered greatly. Some have paid with their lives. Some black Americans aware of how tense this current moment is fear that some law enforcement officers, already on edge, could respond in a way that puts their lives in danger.

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Aaron Thomas, a black man in Columbus, Ohio, wrote:

I will not be covering my face until I am able to obtain a face mask that is unmistakable for what it is. Let me be clear: This is not because I do not trust the advice of the CDC — I do. I believe in science, and I have followed all of its guidelines up to this point. I know masks work, and I trust the CDC’s recommendation.
What I do not trust is the innate biases and lack of critical thought about the implications of these decisions.

For some people of color — perhaps especially black men — the next few weeks will be spent weighing the costs of going in public spaces with their faces covered by bandannas that could lead some to think the worst or going without a face covering and possibly exposing themselves to a virus that appears to be disproportionately affecting black Americans in some communities.

On April 7, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, discussed the lack of health equity when it comes to the impact covid-19 may have on African Americans. (Video: Reuters)