Time to take off the mask? For Black men, that means it’s less likely they’ll be seen as criminals.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on wearing masks, recommending that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear them indoors or in large groups. Americans have had a range of reactions to letting go of that simple public health measure. For Black men, taking off the mask means being less likely to be seen as criminals, our research finds.

We looked into this last spring, after public health experts began recommending masking to slow the spread of the coronavirus — and we began reading some disturbing reports. Black men wearing masks were being treated as criminal suspects, in keeping with long-standing stereotypes connecting Blackness and criminality. Alarmingly, that meant Black men faced a dilemma that Whites likely did not. One of the simplest and most effective tools to protect against a deadly virus also may have increased the likelihood that police and others treated them as criminals.

Our experiment turned up a disturbing pattern. Americans who saw photos of a Black man wearing either a bandanna or homemade cloth mask perceived him as less trustworthy and more threatening than when he was not wearing his mask. Fortunately, when he wore a surgical mask, Americans did not perceive him more negatively.

Here’s how we did our research

Between June 10 and June 18, 2020, we conducted a nationally representative Qualtrics online survey of 2,400 Americans as part of the multi-wave University of North Carolina coronavirus project that surveyed a broad range of attitudes and behaviors related to the pandemic. Within this survey, we embedded an experiment. Each participant read this short, fictitious news story about a young man facing the pandemic.

Today, we caught up with Americans from all walks of life to see how they have been coping during the coronavirus pandemic. We spoke with Michael Smith outside his local grocery store. Smith is one of the tens of millions of Americans who have been recently laid off due to the pandemic. He said, “I mean, times are really tough. Honestly, I’m starting to feel pretty desperate.”

For half the respondents, the accompanying image of Michael Smith was a White man; for the other half, he was Black. Both were models in their mid-20, similarly dressed and photographed in the same grocery store parking lot. In addition, survey participants saw either the White or Black model wearing one of four different masks: a bandanna, a cloth mask, a surgical mask over his face or a surgical mask under his chin — the last of which we included as the control, since it did not cover the face. At this early point in the pandemic, surgical masks were in short supply, so most citizens were relying on homemade masks. We theorized that surgical masks, because they are clearly associated with medicine, might not set off the negative associations between masks and criminality that other masks might.

After reading the story, respondents assessed how trustworthy and how threatening they thought Smith was, using five-point scales that ranged from very threatening/untrustworthy to very unthreatening/trustworthy.

The men were judged differently, based on race

Given the history of pernicious anti-Black stereotypes, we focused our analyses on non-Black respondents (although our results do not substantively change by including all respondents). Most dramatically, we found that people rated the Black model as more untrustworthy and more threatening — by about 5 percent — when he was wearing a bandanna or cloth mask than when he was wearing a surgical mask, whether over his face or tucked away under his chin.

In contrast, people actually saw the White model more positively when he was wearing any type of covering over his face than when he had the mask tucked under his chin.

The effect was even more pronounced when we looked only at non-Black respondents with more negative attitudes toward Black people, measured using the racial resentment scale common in social science research. People who believe U.S. racial disparities exist because Black Americans fail to work hard enough rather than because of systemic discrimination perceived the Black model about 10 points more negatively when he was wearing the bandanna or cloth mask. Notably, however, negative perceptions of the Black model did not increase when he wore a surgical mask compared to when he tucked it under his chin.

Results were roughly the same for both trustworthiness and threat level.

Is a mask a public health tool — or a threat?

Before the pandemic, few Americans wore masks in public, except on Halloween — which meant that in the popular imagination, mask-wearing was associated people hiding their identities to commit crimes. That shifted during the pandemic from being almost certainly negative to being ambiguous or even charged with political meaning. Someone wearing a mask might be protecting themselves from the virus — or they could be preparing to commit a crime. (Later, mask-wearing became a symbol of political allegiances, but we weren’t testing for that.)

Our findings suggest that, at least in June, Americans were more likely to assume the worst about a Black man in a mask than about a White man in a mask. That’s likely because Americans are more likely to perceive Black people as criminals than White people. Notably, a surgical mask — with an entirely different set of mental associations — appeared to break this link.

To be sure, a lot has changed since June 2020. Americans’ widespread use of all kinds of masks since then may have changed these perceptions.

When ostensibly race-neutral policies have racial implications

Unfortunately, the United States has a long history of ostensibly race-neutral policies that have a racially disparate impact. Requiring voters to show a photo ID is more likely to stop a Black citizen from voting than a White citizen, given the disproportionately greater share of Black Americans without official government identification. Similarly, disenfranchising anyone convicted of a felony disproportionately prevents Black citizens from voting, given systemic racism throughout our criminal justice system.

Mask mandates may have fit in this category. While the mandates are disappearing as more Americans are vaccinated, wearing masks to protect health may be with us for some time. Citizens and policymakers may wish to remain aware of how that may affect how Americans perceive and treat Black men.

Leah Christiani is an assistant professor of political science and faculty affiliate with the women, gender, and sexuality program at the University of Tennessee.

Christopher J. Clark is associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he specializes in the areas of minority representation and state politics and is author of “Gaining Voice” (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Steven Greene (@hankgreene) is professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

Marc Hetherington is Raymond Dawson Professor of Political Science at University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill.

Emily Wager is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Houston and specializes in public opinion and inequality. She is the co-author of “Converging on Truth: A Dynamic Perspective on Factual Debates in American Public Opinion” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Photo credit: Messiah Amaram. Figure created by Steven Greene.