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Study suggests that mask mandate could lead to racial profiling

A new study suggests Black people are perceived to be more threatening when they wear a bandana or cloth face covering instead of a surgical mask.

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Joe Fisher
, WRAL multimedia journalist
RALEIGH, N.C. — A new study suggests Black people are perceived to be more threatening when they wear a bandana or cloth face covering instead of a surgical mask.
With a statewide requirement that people cover their faces in public to limit the spread of coronavirus taking effect Friday, researchers say they hope their findings affect state actions.

“There’s a lot of prejudice and discrimination out there, and African-Americans are more likely, it seems, to face that when wearing a bandana or a cloth mask face covering," said Steve Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.

Greene and researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were part of a team that surveyed 2,400 non-Black people nationwide.

They found that a Black and a white model were viewed 5 percent more untrustworthy and more threatening while wearing a bandana than when wearing a surgical mask. But when researchers zeroed in on respondents who identified as having negative racial views, the white model stayed at 5 percent and the Black model jumped to 9 percent more untrustworthy and 12 percent more threatening with a bandana.

"By comparing the results to the white model, we were able to show it’s not just, 'Well, people don’t like bandanas and cloth masks,'" Greene said. "People don’t like bandanas and cloth face coverings on a Black man, in particular.”

While the bandana was unfavorable, the Black model was viewed essentially the same while wearing a surgical mask as when he wore no mask at all. Greene said the results are linked to stereotypes.

"Something like a bandana [suggests] bank robbers, criminals – a threat," he said. "Something like a surgical mask brings an entirely different set of stereotypes. Honestly, you are thinking about doctors and nurses."

Before issuing the mask mandate, state officials spent weeks urging people to cover their faces in public while also acknowledging masks could lead to racial profiling.

"We can't talk about face coverings and not acknowledge that some populations may feel increased anxiety, fear or bias," Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in one of the state's daily coronavirus briefings. "If someone is the target of ethnic and racial discrimination as a result of following the recommendations to wear face coverings, I strongly encourage that it is reported to law enforcement or another government entity."

Greene said his team is working to get the study peer-reviewed and published, but they have already sent their findings to state health officials.

“We would argue that, with the governments making policies saying everybody needs to wear a mask, that to some degree, it is incumbent upon the government – the government's responsibility – to help ensure that everybody, especially the African-Americans in our area, can get those surgical masks," he said.

Charlotte-based Atrium Health announced an effort Wednesday that it and other major employers, including Bank of America, Lowe's Home Improvement and the Carolina Panthers, would donate 1 million masks to needy communities statewide.


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