Guess Who’s Not Wearing Their Face Masks - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Guess Who’s Not Wearing Their Face Masks

Guess Who’s Not Wearing Their Face Masks

By Fiona Zublin


Because anyone can transmit the virus.

By Fiona Zublin

In mid-June, Lincoln County, Oregon, required its community to wear masks in public as part of its fight against the coronavirus. Well, not the whole community: Kids under 12 were exempt, as was anyone with a disability or medical condition that made a mask unviable, and people of color who felt vulnerable to harassment due to the mask.

It didn’t last. After an explosion of what the police department described as “horrifically racist commentary,” it rescinded the exception due to concerns that it could make the Black community in Lincoln County, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the population, even more of a target for harassment.

After a summer of viral videotaped incidents in which white people — and yes, it’s pretty much always white people — scream abuse at anyone who tries to get them to follow masking rules, it’s obvious who the problem is. But this particular instance of white privilege flies in the face of scientific consensus that masks help slow the spread of the virus. And it’s not just a few bad apples. In fact …

White people are 30 percent less likely to wear masks outside than people of color.

That’s according to an early-August Gallup poll, which found that just 42 percent of white people wear masks outdoors when social distancing is not possible, compared to 60 percent of non-white people. Democrats were almost three times as likely to mask up outside as Republicans, and women were far more likely to so do than men. While senior citizens — a high-risk group — were better about wearing their masks outside than younger people, when it comes to wearing them indoors, 89 percent of 18- to 44-year-olds say they cover up compared with 88 percent of those 64 and older.

Overall just 47 percent of Americans say they always or usually wear a mask outdoors — a stark contrast to a late-July AP poll that found 3 in 4 Americans approve of masks being required in public. But the lack of concern for public health doesn’t stop at masks: 2016 data on vaccinations found that unvaccinated children were more likely to be white, although a Pew Research Center survey this month found that Black Americans were by far the least likely to say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if one became available.

This example of white privilege may be a function of risk calculation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that death rates from COVID-19 are twice as high for Black Americans as for white ones, and a poll in April found that Black people were four times as likely to know someone who had died of the disease. According to Gabriel R. Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “We believe that one of the driving factors behind the racial and ethnic differences in mask-wearing is that whites are less likely to know someone who has been infected by COVID-19, which is driven by the large inequalities in infection rates based on race.”

Ironically, white people can generally wear masks without being harassed — unlike people of color. In the pandemic’s early days, association of the virus with China led to an increase in attacks on people of Asian descent who were wearing masks, while Black men have found themselves a target of abuse and intimidation for wearing masks. Two Black men in Illinois were not only forced to leave a store by a police officer because they were masked but he also told them, falsely, that face coverings were illegal. In many states they’re required — and there’s no exception for white people who just don’t feel like wearing one.

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