Racial Profiling and the Pandemic – Two Public Health Emergencies

Alice Forbes

25th June 2020


To help slow the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advocated for the wearing of face coverings in public spaces; a minor inconvenience that we should all be willing to endure for the benefit of those around us. In the United States, however, this has not been so easy a sacrifice for many within the Black community, who have expressed fear that covering their face in public could exacerbate racial profiling.


This is a concern that has been further intensified by the CDP’s recommendation of DIY face coverings as a substitution for professional-grade surgical masks, which, in the US especially, are worryingly scarce. A tweet by Aaron Thomas, a teacher living in Ohio, went viral in April shortly after these guidelines came into force. Thomas expressed unease at the idea of wearing anything that isn’t “CLEARLY a protective mask”, owing to the fact that he is a Black man.



For many Black Americans, wearing a face mask could be equivalent to putting their life at risk, due to the reality of racially prejudiced targeting, and this is something that even official authorities are forced to recognize. A document entitled “COVID-19 General Guidance on Wearing Face Masks for African Americans and Communities of Color ” was subsequently published by Franklin County Public Health, and instantly slammed as offensive by many Americans. In it, a section dedicated to homemade masks recommended the avoidance of “bandanas that are red or blue, as these are typically associated with gang symbolism”. The guidelines continued: “It is not recommended to wear a scarf just simply tied around the head as this can indicate unsavoury behaviour, although not intended”. Although Franklin County Public Health was quick to issue an apology, acknowledging that their language came across as “blaming the victims”, the mere fact that the document was released in the first place is indicative of the prevalence of racial profiling, andits potentially dangerous consequences.


It is not just makeshift face coverings which appear to incite this racial bias. In March, two Black men in Illinois filmed themselves being escorted out of a Walmart for wearing what were evidently surgical masks. In the video, which has since been viewed nearly 30,000 times on YouTube, a police officer is seen walking behind the pair as they exit the shop. One of the men narrates: “He just followed us from outside, told us that we can’t wear masks. This police officer just put us out for wearing masks and trying to stay safe.” Amid a global pandemic, trying to stay safe is everyone’s top priority. However, while wearing a mask may offer protection against the coronavirus, it clearly cannot protect against racism.


“However, while wearing a mask may offer protection against the coronavirus, it clearly cannot protect against racism”

Furthermore, recent cases of police brutality in the US, such as the murder of George Floyd, have evidenced the urgency with which racially targeted bias against the Black community must be combated. For this reason, large-scale public demonstrations have erupted, which by their very nature may cause a spike in COVID-19 cases. Factors such as a shortage of masks and the viral spread of droplets from protestors chanting could contribute to this. However, police tactics also share a responsibility in threatening to accelerate the spread of the virus. Violent retaliation against demonstrators further impedes their ability to social distance. At the same time, the spraying of tear gas is known to cause recipients to cough, salivate and shed tears, all things we have been told to refrain from while in public. However, despite existing medical guidelines urging people to stay indoors, many health professionals are endorsing the demonstrations. Eleanor Murray, a Boston University epidemiologist is quoted in an article by Vox as saying: “It’s always been ‘stay at home as much as possible, except for essential activities.’ […] Protesting police violence is an essential activity for a lot of people.”


The risk of transmitting the virus is complicated by pressing moral stakes. If in doubt about the urgency with which the systemic discrimination against Black Americans must be tackled, you need only look at how disproportionately the pandemic is currently affecting their community. Recent figures relating to COVID-19 compiled by the APM Research Lab reveal that the mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.3 times higher than the rate for Whites. Longstanding structural inequalities mean that the Black community are overrepresented among the lower-paid workforce who are unable to work remotely during the pandemic. This reality, that Black Americans earn disproportionately less than their white counterparts, additionally makes them less likely to be able to afford health insurance and, therefore, more likely to suffer pre-existing health conditions.


The wearing of face coverings and the avoidance of large gatherings are two of the principle guidelines recommended by medical experts to protect yourself and others against the coronavirus. However, for Black Americans, abiding by these guidelines carries added risks. Wearing face coverings may exacerbate racially biased discrimination and violence while abstaining from large gatherings limits the degree to which one can protest against this same discrimination and violence. The cruelly ironic result is that the community who have long been most likely to experience the potentially life-threatening consequences of racial profiling additionally now hold the highest COVID-19-related mortality rate. The coronavirus is an emergency that has suddenly given rise to global collective action. Racial profiling is an emergency in itself and now, more than ever, it requires the same degree of action.




Featured photo by Wikimedia




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