At a recent meeting, a citizen asked Kansas City police officials what safeguards the department had in place to protect the civil rights of minorities who are heeding medical experts’ advice and wearing face masks in public.
The responses were telling a reminder that even during a global pandemic, the rights of certain people are an afterthought.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” said Nathan Garrett, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.
Police Chief Rick Smith followed by saying that many police officers were wearing masks as well.
“I am not aware of any issues around this topic,” the chief said.
Wait, what? Feigning ignorance about a very real concern is an alarming response.
This weekend, I plan to shop for essential items such as groceries, a rare outing during the shelter-in-place lockdown necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak.
But as a black man, the decision to wear a mask in public is a complex matter of personal safety versus public health.
I try my best to adhere to the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when I venture into public. But it is a dicey proposition.
“It is incumbent on law enforcement to ensure that all Missourians have access to essential goods,” said Sara Baker, policy director for the ACLU of Missouri.
Local police agencies and private security companies should provide clear guidance to officers and emphasize that racial profiling will not be tolerated. Singling out people of color violates their civil rights. Retail and grocery stores workers could benefit from a refresher course, too.
In Kansas City and across the country, racial profiling remains all too real. It transcends policing. Black Americans, especially men, are singled out on a routine basis.
The first weekend after the CDC issued its recommendation, I shopped for groceries at a local store. To cover my mouth and nose, I wore a fashionable scarf adorned with a replica of the American flag as a homemade cloth mask.
Less than 30 seconds after I walked into the store, I removed the covering. I simply did not feel comfortable wearing a mask on my face inside a store.
A few days later, it was reported that two black men in Wood River, Illinois, were escorted out of a local Walmart after security asked them to remove their masks. The men taped the encounter. Similar stories continue to emerge.
Shopping while black has been at the forefront of the public consciousness for years, said Jamila Jefferson-Jones, interim director for the Black Studies program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
In an article that Jefferson-Jones co-authored with Taja-Nia Y. Henderson for an academic journal, the pair explored the propensity of white people to call the police on black people for shopping, grilling or otherwise just existing.
Face coverings are problematic for African Americans in public, Jefferson-Jones said.
“Just from a safety standpoint, we should wear masks,” she said. “But police need to be admonished for mistreating black people at this time.”
We are living in extraordinary and uncertain times. We are all making sacrifices and adjustments. But African Americans and other people of color should never feel like they must choose between ensuring personal safety and protecting public health.
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