Two black men say they were kicked out of an Illinois Walmart for wearing 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, Illinois, 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 men did not respond to Washington Post attempts to contact them, 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, assisted by 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."
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 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."