Will masks be a magnet for racial profiling?

Johnny Fikru can’t leave the house without carrying the weight of double consciousness with him.

“Double consciousness,” a concept coined by renowned sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, refers to “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” and in particular for African Americans like Fikru, always thinking how you will be seen under a white gaze.

Seattle’s Fikru has been thinking a lot about double consciousness lately, particularly as King County, Wash., just directed the public to wear face coverings in public places, effective Monday. As afraid as he is about catching the coronavirus, he is equally afraid of being seen as a threat as a black man in a mask.

“We’re living in different worlds,” Fikru said. “I have to do whatever I need to do to make it look like I’m not a threat,” and wearing a mask makes that harder, he said. He even takes care to use a white paper-type mask, instead of a bandanna or a cloth covering, because he feels that will make other people less apprehensive.

Remembering Arbery

Fikru’s fears were reinforced recently by the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man jogging in his Georgia neighborhood who was allegedly chased and shot by a White father and son, who said they thought he was a possible burglar.

They are now charged with murder. Fikru and Arbery would be the same age if Arbery had lived. Fikru is an avid runner, as Arbery was. The parallels hit Fikru, 26, hard.

“Our bodies are unarmed and we’re still (seen as) a threat,” Fikru said.

Fikru’s fears of racial profiling could also be looked at through the lens of the American “racial contract,” which writer Adam Serwer described in a powerful piece in The Atlantic last week.

Serwer wrote, “the racial contract is a codicil rendered in invisible ink, one stating that the rules as written do not apply to non-white people in the same way.”

Invisible rules

These invisible rules are what allow White protesters armed with assault rifles to violate stay-at-home orders and confront law makers in capitol buildings without any repercussions, while at the same time, Blacks and Latinos are slapped with 80% of New York City’s social distancing violations.

You could get whiplash trying to follow the ever-changing guidance on face coverings. Remember back in late February when the U.S. Surgeon General said masks were “NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus?”

Then a month later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended everyone wear homemade masks. While mask wearing has long been common throughout Asia, many Asian Americans also feared wearing masks due to racist attacks and discrimination.

Now, it seems at least in parts of Seattle, we have done a 180 and are widely accepting of masks, which is a very welcome change.

Yet nationally, mask wearing has become a flash point, with retail and service workers — who are disproportionately people of color — being left to enforce new rules on wearing masks indoors, sometimes leading to violent confrontations.

Root causes

The cruel irony is that the people most at risk for the virus are also the ones most likely to experience the dangers of racial profiling. One man, Aaron Thomas, put it this way on Twitter, “(As a Black man) I want to stay alive, but I also want to stay alive.”

As I wrote about before, in the United States, African Americans are some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Nationwide, Black people are 13% of the population, but account for 27% of coronavirus deaths — at least according to the insufficient data available.

The root causes are multifaceted and a legacy of our country’s history of racial inequality, but one reason is that Black people are more likely to be in front-line essential jobs with no way to work from home.

Huge racial divide

Consequently, 1 in 4 Black adults know someone who has been hospitalized or died from coronavirus, compared with 1 in 10 Whites.

It’s no surprise, then, that there is a huge racial divide between people of color who believe the health risks of opening the country are too great (84%) vs. White Americans (52%).

King County’s new mask directive has no enforcement provisions, but that won’t stop the domino effect of suspicion, reporting and confrontation we have seen play out time and time again, a pattern that puts the racial contract into effect.

‘Check your biases’

We are likely going to be in this new reality for a long, long time. How will we respond? Fear can bring out the worst and the best in us. My hope is that for those of us with racial privilege, we each examine how we are upholding or dismantling that invisible racial contract.

When we see a “suspicious” person with their face covered, ask ourselves, would that person be suspicious if I was doing what they are doing? If my child was doing it?

As Fikru put it, “Black people are doing their best to survive every day and especially now in the pandemic. Now is not the time to see us as a threat. Just don’t act on your biases, check your biases.”

Naomi Ishisaka is a columnist for The Seattle Times.

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