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For African-American Men, Wearing A Mask Means Balancing Public Health And Personal Safety

Billy Chadwick wears a mask outside Tad's Cookout in Wichita, where he's a cook.
Billy Chadwick wears a mask outside Tad's Cookout in Wichita, where he's a cook.

As businesses around Kansas reopen and restrictions are lifted, more people are wearing masks when out in public. Black Americans are more likely to get coronavirus and die from it, but recent killings in Minneapolis and Georgia again show why black men are still worried about covering their faces.

As businesses around Kansas reopen, and restrictions on everyday life are lifted, more people are wearing masks when out in public.

On a recent afternoon, Billy Chadwick is standing outside Tad's Carryout in Wichita, where he’s a cook. He wears a dark-blue mask — something he’s diligent about.

"I have asthma, but I go to other places I see people don’t be wearing them. They think this is a game," Chadwick said. "This ain't a game."

Most health officials recommend wearing masks, which can help slow the spread of COVID-19 as the pandemic continues. And a study by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that African-Americans are more likely than whites and Hispanics to wear a mask.

But for African-American men in particular, the decision whether or not to mask up can be a difficult one. 

"Statistics [are] saying we're dying quicker than any other race, why wouldn’t we want to wear them?" said David Gilkey, co-founder of the Wichita nonprofit Rise Up for Youth.

Recent data shows black Kansans are three times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than white Kansans and more than seven times more likely to die from the virus.

"People of color are certainly being disproportionately affected by this disease, and we are seeing that across the country," said Chloe Steinshouer, a pulmonary and critical care physician in Wichita who leads care for some of the sickest COVID-19 patients.

"It’s concerning because we have yet to really clarify why that is," she said. "We know that there is racial inequality in the health care system that needs to be systematically addressed, but also there appears to be some sort of either combination of medical conditions that puts people at higher risk, or if it's delays in care, it’s not clear what that reason is."

But even with the seriousness of the coronavirus, there’s still some reluctance to wear a face covering.

Gilkey says young black men still have to concern themselves with being targeted or criminalized while wearing a mask because of the color of their skin.

"A lot of people are scared to wear them now. You don’t know, should I wear it or shouldn’t I wear it?" he said. "It’s crazy and it’s sad that we have to live like that, you know? It's always something targeting our black males.

"We can’t even go jogging now."

Still, Gilkey says he’ll continue to wear a mask as long as needed.

"At this point, I have to wear one for my safety and my well-being," he said. "It's sad that people would judge me because I have a mask on because of the color of my skin, not because I’m wearing it to protect my health and protect your health, you know, people around me."

Carla Eckels is director of cultural diversity and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.
Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Carla Eckels is Director of Cultural Diversity for News and Engagement at KMUW. She has been an award-winning announcer and news producer for KMUW since 1996. Carla also produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsationsthat airs Sundays at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. She annually emcees Gospelfest at the Wichita River Festival and was voted Best Disc Jockey by subscribers of The Community Voice. Prior to coming to KMUW, Carla was the local host for NPR’s Morning Editionat WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and co-hosted a nationally syndicated gospel radio show in Cincinnati. Carla was also program director for KIBN, the Inspirational Black Network in Wichita, hosted the Joyful Sounds gospel show on Q92-FM and produced the number one gospel radio show on KSJM 107.9 JAMZ from 2004 to 2007.
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