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Masks can lead to discrimination for people of color

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Even as a community leader, Greg Jones says he initially had concerns heading out with a mask during the pandemic.

"I'll be honest, the first two times I went into a retail store, I looked behind me to say, you know, am I being seen as a shopper or customer, or am I being seen as someone who may be seen as a threat?" he said.

As president of the Dane County NAACP chapter, he's heard similar worries from other Black men in the community, especially when it comes to police encounters.

"Many Black men fear wearing a mask [more] than the virus itself. That wearing that mask places them in danger and harm, and that, you know, it's kind of a balancing act: do I not wear the mask and run the risk of exposure to illness, the virus, or do I protect myself and place myself in danger? That's the equation I think a lot of Black men are facing," Jones told 27 News.

That fear is rooted in racism and discrimination the Black community has faced for years.

Fair and Impartial Policing, an organization that trains police officers across the US to recognize and respond to their racial bias released a video on the impact of discrimination when it comes to masks and the pandemic. That video features former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray.

Focusing on Black community health

Jones hopes the new mask order won't lead to discrimination in the community, urging everyone to remember wearing a mask means protecting our health right now, and is not a threat.

"The number one health issue facing all of us, regardless of race, gender, creed, color, is the virus that has to be paramount in our mind," he said.

Black health is the main focus right now for Tutankhamun Assad.

"We should be passing those masks out. We should be blessing people with the ability to stay healthy and we should first and foremost in the Black community understand that Black health matters, every step of the way," he said.

Assad, known as 'Coach' to the young people he mentors in Madison, says regardless of the potential for racism, he urges his community to protect themselves and wear a mask.

"They think that stuff anyway. It's not gonna keep me from being healthy, it's not going to keep me from infecting a grandmother or an aging aunt," Assad told 27 News. "Young black people, all black people, before we allow this disease to devastate our senior citizens who have been our leaders and our guides, let's mask up."

Coach Assad's organization, the Mellowhood Foundation, has been working to bring health care to low income and under-served communities during the pandemic. They helped set up a free testing site earlier this month.

He was amazed to see 1,300 people show up over several days to a place they felt safe getting tested.

"Every day we saw more brown and black people, which was, it was almost spiritual for me because that is the demographic that's always the last group recognized when you deal with any health crisis, much less a pandemic," he said.

Free mask distribution in Dane County

Meanwhile, local organizations are working to bring masks to diverse communities in Dane County.

NAACP partnered with Boys & Girls Club to offer pandemic 'survival kits' at free testing sites and plans to continue working to make sure the community is prepared to stay safe.

Dane County departments started a mask distribution system to get masks to community centers, churches, schools, food pantries and other organizations that reach under-served neighborhoods.

As of Saturday, those teams have given out 37,500 masks to organizations across the area, including a few examples below. The county has purchased an additional 70,000 masks that are arriving later this week.

Plus, the county is partnering with Dane County Mask Makers to fulfill smaller, individual requests for cloth masks.

While he had to cancel most activities for Mellowhood youth this summer, Coach Assad is organizing driveway history lessons on Fridays to get young people involved. He's inviting community leaders to come share their stories. He can be contacted at 608-209-1863.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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