African Americans, especially larger black men, often face racial discrimination and fear at work and by their neighborhood police officers. In 2020 and 2021, the Coronavirus pandemic response had everyone from the CDC to local mayors begging people to mask up. But for African Americans, the choice was whether to face increased racial discrimination by wearing a mask and covering their face or exposing it and risk death from COVID-19.
Gabriel Felix, a psychiatry resident in a Boston-area hospital, has always planned his wardrobe carefully. A 6’3” tall black man, he has faced racial discrimination and microexpressions of discomfort just walking down the street. Felix, like many African Americans, makes strategic choices every day about how to dress and behave in a way that won’t expose him to racist assumptions and an unnecessary conversation with police. It may be as simple as wearing a college T-shirt while jogging or making that trip to the grocery store before sunset. They know it doesn’t take much for a black man to go from neighbor to suspect.
Then came COVID-19. As scientists and government agencies came to understand how the virus was transmitted, cities, states, and even the Centers for Disease Control all began to recommend residents wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus. Eventually those recommendations became mandates. Those not wearing masks could be fined or removed from stores.
That left Felix with a dilemma. As a black man, mask mandates set up a kind of Catch-22. If they stayed bare-faced they could mitigate the effects of systemic racism in their daily lives, but they risked catching and spreading the deadly virus. However, if they wore the masks they would run the risk of facing increased discrimination just because someone couldn’t see their faces.
That’s what happened to Illinois State Senator Kam Buckner in June 2020. At 35 years old and 6’4” tall, Buckner was recently racially targeted coming out of a Chicago hardware store. He was wearing a mask, as required by a state-wide executive order. As white customers walked past, a uniformed police officer stopped Buckner and asked him for his receipt and his ID. Looking down at the flowers he had just purchased, Buckner tried to avoid escalating the situation. But he still asked why the officer had stopped him. The officer told him, “I can’t see your face. You look like you might have been up to something.” The brief police encounter bothered Buckner.
“It woke me up in the middle of the night, and I said this is not OK,” said Buckner. “I thought about all of the millions of Black men around the country being told they have to wear masks. We are extremely apprehensive about the masks, even though we know it’s the right thing to do.”
Buckner was hardly the only person facing African American discrimination in the face of the mask mandates. Similar stories began to emerge across the country. In Florida, Dr. Armen Henderson was arrested for unloading supplies out of a van in his front yard while he was volunteering to give COVID tests to homeless people in Miami. In Wood River, Illinois -- the same state where Buckner was stopped for complying with the state-wide mask mandate -- two young Black men were escorted out of a Walmart by an officer with his hand on his gun. The police officer told them their masks were illegal.
Vickie Mays, a distinguished professor of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health put the issue into perspective:
“Which death do they choose? Covid-19 or police shooting? . . . We have African Americans who have been dragged out of stores, who have been ordered by police and store guards to pull their masks down or take their masks off.”
Now, almost a year after Felix wrote his article describing his concern, states are beginning to open up and workers are being recalled into their offices and workplaces. Many have not yet received a vaccine and remain vulnerable to the virus. They will need to decide whether to come to work wearing a mask and risk racial discrimination by customers or even their coworkers who mistake them for a “suspicious” masked black man or woman.
But employers can help. There are several steps companies can take to protect their customer-facing employees from discrimination and avoid the disruption caused by an unnecessary police visit. This could include:
Black Americans shouldn’t be forced to choose between a deadly disease and a risk of being shot by police. While the country continues to wrestle with systemic racism, employers need to do their part to keep their returning workers safe, whether or not they are wearing masks.
At Eisenberg & Baum, we understand how hard it is for Black workers to navigate racial discrimination at work. Our employment discrimination attorneys, can help employees file their claims under Title VII and state civil rights laws when employers fail to respond to racism by customers or coworkers. We will push for system-wide changes, at work and in the community, so that you will feel safe on the job. If you have been the victim racial discrimination, contact us. We'll meet with you and help create a strategy that protects you and your coworkers against ongoing racial bias and poor treatment.