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Black Americans raising concerns about being profiled for wearing masks amid coronavirus

Throughout the country, black Americans have expressed concerns about being profiled for wearing masks in public amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In Wood River, Ill., two men wearing masks reported they were being followed by a police officer inside a Walmart store, according to The Telegraph.

One of the men, Jermon Best, took out his phone and began recording the incident.

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"He just followed us from outside, told us that we cannot wear masks," Best said in the video, while the officer walked close behind with his hand near his pistol. "The coronavirus is real. This police officer just put us out for wearing masks and trying to be safe."

The men described the encounter to The Telegraph, a local paper, as "terrifying."

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

Wood River Police Chief Brad Wells told The Washington Post that the incident is being investigated internally with assistance from a local NAACP branch. Best posted the video to YouTube, where it received nearly 200,000 views.

The police chief said the officer first approached the men outside of the Walmart on March 15 due to a belief that the men were "acting suspiciously." The officer asked for the men's identification and told them that a city ordinance prohibited the wearing of masks.

"This statement was incorrect and should not have been made," Wells said in a written statement. "The city does not have such an ordinance prohibiting the wearing of a mask. In fact, I support the wearing of a nonsurgical mask or face covering when in public during the COVID-19 pandemic period."

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In Massachusetts, Michael Jeffries, a Wellesley College sociologist whose studies focus on racism and culture, said that inflamed racial politics within the U.S. would prove challenging for the government if it expects universal compliance with health guidelines such as recommended mask use, the Post reported.

Jeffries referenced the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was concealed by a hoodie.

"Black folks can't even wear hooded sweatshirts without being accused of being criminals," he said. "To issue guidance like this without any historical awareness — especially given recent and traumatic history — it's going to be hard for people to follow that advice considering the consequences, which are literally deadly."

Jeffries also pointed to other times he said assumptions of black criminality were intensified during times of national crisis, referring specifically to African Americans scavenging for food being labeled as "looters" following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.