Three young people wearing black face masks

Franklin County’s health department made national news in May after apologizing for issuing mask-wearing guidelines widely denounced as racist. The story was carried in newspapers from the Washington Post to the Seattle Times, in the national magazine The Week and by CNN.

A place the story didn’t make big news, though, was Franklin County itself. Neither the county’s daily newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, nor the city’s television stations covered it. WOSU Radio carried a small story, for whatever tiny percentage of the county’s residents follow that.

The guidelines stemmed from the April 3 announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encouraging the public to wear masks to contain the spread of COVID-19. Some racial minorities voiced concerns they could be profiled by wearing masks. Their anxiety presented the health department with an opportunity to educate central Ohioans to shun racist attitudes.

The department instead told racial minorities they were the ones needing to change, advising them:

·      “Avoid fabrics that elicit deeply held stereotypes. (i.e. bandanas, skull prints, horror prints, etc.)”

·      “When utilizing a homemade mask, avoid bandanas that are red or blue, as these are typically associated with gang symbolism.”

·      “It is not recommended to wear a scarf just simply tied around the head as this can indicate unsavory behavior, although not intended.”

After seeing strong objections on social media that the guidelines promoted racist stereotypes – with one critic calling them advice on how “to avoid being lynched” - the department withdrew them on May 20. The department also apologized that the language “came across as offensive and blaming the victims.” It went on: “Everyone deserves to feel safe while wearing a face covering and not be subjected to stigma, bias or discrimination.”

Ironically, a week earlier the department had declared racism a public health crisis. While the apology was deserved and welcome, uncertainty remains about how well the department understands the harms of racial stereotyping and how much the Columbus media care, which may be part of the crisis.

The apology recognizes that the harms include offending people, making them feel unsafe and causing discrimination. But the damage to human lives goes further, including wrongful arrests, convictions and killings in Columbus and elsewhere.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., a professor at Northeastern University and a leading researcher on the science of the brain and emotions, writes about “affective realism.” She explains this as the brain’s tendency “to see what we believe, and it usually happens outside of everyone’s awareness.” In the context of police encounters with the public, this means police holding disparaging beliefs about racial minorities may be more likely to incorrectly perceive a serious threat from them and unnecessarily respond aggressively, including with deadly force.

Barrett’s findings are relevant to police shootings of racial minorities in Columbus, after which officers and eyewitnesses commonly disagree on whether the victim carried, showed, reached for or pointed a weapon. The prosecutor and local officials almost always side with the police’s version. In addition to the possibility of officers engaging in what police themselves call “testilying” about such matters, an alternative explanation is that a combination of racism and affective realism may have led officers to misperceive a weapon or other threat when none was present. 

For this reason, Barrett advocates that police be trained on how unscientific and harmful racial stereotyping is, including its potential for deceiving the brain into misperceiving situations and causing unnecessary harm or death. And particularly with the increasing number of citizens carrying weapons supposedly for self-defense, she supports similar education for the public to prevent needless shootings, in addition to other unfair and harmful treatment of racial minorities.

Peter Neufeld, cofounder of the Innocence Project that has freed hundreds of wrongly convicted persons through DNA testing, agrees that racial stereotyping is a significant factor in wrongful arrests and imprisonment. “There is a disproportionate number of black people who are wrongly convicted in America,” he states. He blames this partly on racial biases completely inconsistent with reality.

Law professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Godsey, who heads the Ohio Innocence Project, likewise attributes many wrongful convictions to faulty thinking and assumptions, especially about race. He says, “We as a society are in collective denial about our biases” – racial and otherwise. As part of the solution, he urges people inside and outside the legal system to “fight the bias, fight their instincts” and “stay objective as long as you can.”

It’s more difficult for central Ohioans to make those self-improvements when their county government tells them that racial minorities wearing certain attire are more likely to be involved in antisocial behavior - and thus more likely to be aggressively confronted by police or private citizens – than whites wearing the same garb.

The difficulty increases when the local corporate media ignore the whole matter instead of using it as an opportunity for public discussion and education about the dangers and evils of racial stereotyping.

Joe Sommer is a Columbus attorney and activist who is retired from Ohio’s state government.