Breathing while Black | Identity & Culture | Chicago Reader

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Breathing while Black

Seeking safety isn’t so easy if you’re battling COVID-19 while Black.

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Derrick Clifton is a writer and commentator focusing on the intersections of identity, culture, and social justice issues. Clifton wrote the Reader's award-winning Identity and Culture column during the 2016 election season.

I have a history of asthma. I also exist in this country as a tall, brawny, and Black individual who was assigned male at birth. Having space to breathe is hard enough as it is without a pandemic that threatens to corrupt my air.

A mask covered my face just as COVID-19 began dominating the news cycle, and well before officials advised the public to wear them. I knew I’d be in a higher-risk category given my underlying health condition. But right now, I’m also caring for elders who are even more vulnerable. That means going outside and confronting the unknown elements despite any trepidation.

One of those fears? Being targeted or attacked for wearing a mask while Black.

The loved ones I’m sheltering with live in a food desert, so I journey at least four to five miles away to the south suburbs to gather groceries and supplies. That includes venturing for paper products at the Walmart superstore in Evergreen Park where two employees recently died from complications of COVID-19. I drive just a little farther away for groceries, opting for stores that are less crowded. 

But that means driving past businesses brandishing Blue Lives Matter flags outside, and entering stores and suburbs where there are fewer Black people around, all while wearing a mask. Coronavirus is already stealing the breath out of Black bodies, and overzealous police officers and vigilantes are making matters worse.

In late March, a police officer forced two Black men out of a Walmart in Wood River, Illinois, as they were shopping for materials while wearing masks. “[This officer] followed us from outside and told us we cannot wear masks . . . We’re being asked to leave for being safe,” Jermon Best said in a video he uploaded to YouTube as the officer trailed a few feet behind him and Diangelo Jackson.

“I don’t know if he was having a bad day. I’ve never said that the guy was racist,” Best told the Telegraph. “All I’m saying is that his actions were suspect.”

Weeks later, a Miami police officer placed a Black doctor in handcuffs while he was wearing a mask outside of his apartment and preparing for a volunteer shift to test the homeless for coronavirus. Dr. Armen Henderson, an organizer with Dream Defenders, was accused of littering and was only released after yelling for his wife to come outside and present his identification.

And in Kentucky, a white doctor was caught on video and arrested for strangling a Black teenager and pushing others to the ground, reportedly out of anger that the teen and her friends weren’t social distancing enough from each other in public.

You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

When white people catch a cold, Black people get the flu. Decades of racial disparities in health-care access have already created a precarious situation in Chicago and in major cities across the country, where African Americans are disproportionately contracting and dying from the coronavirus

It’s all the harder to follow stay-at-home orders when economic disparities and a legacy of racist housing policies mean Black people are more likely to live in crowded neighborhoods and overcrowded homes, or are more likely to be homeless. Space to breathe, let alone exist, is already more of a commodity than it should be.

Before the coronavirus, Black people already knew what it meant to be socially distanced from some of their peers—like when white people clutch their belongings and walk to the opposite end of the street to impose more than six feet of space from a Black person approaching, or when they flee a neighborhood once Black people start moving in. And now that unemployment runs rampant, as the trend usually goes, Black people may have a much harder time reentering the workforce and are out of jobs at a rate that’s at least twice that of white workers.

Black people already know that we can do everything right, in any realm, and still end up with the short end of the stick. Wearing a mask and gloves may offer some semblance of protection from a deadly virus, but that mask won’t hide the very Blackness that subjects us to the surveillance, bodily harm, and destitution we’ve constantly tried to evade because of racial bigotry. 

If anything, the coronavirus should be a wake-up call that it’ll take more than lip service and platitudes to bridge the gaps in access to life opportunities that Black people deserve but have been routinely denied. 

It’d be nice to shop with a protective mask without fear. It’d be even nicer to feel much more empowered to exhale.  v

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