As reported in Slog AM, King County's face mask directive is now in effect. It will, however, not be enforced. It is ultimately up to an individual to decide if he or she will place the lives of other King County citizens in danger or not.
We can surely blame the directive's lack of any kind of penalty on the cult of American individualism. A serious challenge to the sanctity of the one (i.e. you must wear a face mask by law) is to challenge an area of American culture that sees property rights as the stuff of laws formulated in the clouds, like the Ten Commandments. And so, we must unnecessarily endure the pandemic for longer than need be.
Some, however, argue that the problem with the penalization of the face-mask directive is it will have racial consequences in a society that disproportionately polices and incarcerates black people. But the substance of this argument is complicated when placed next to this other fact: the virus disproportionately impacts people of color, particularly blacks and Latinos.
COVID-19 also disproportionately impacts the working classes, whose members fill many of the underpaid but economically vital jobs in sectors involving food production, distribution, and services. And so, not wearing a mask in, say, a supermarket, is to place a large number of white, brown, and black minimum-wage workers in unnecessary danger. If the customer wears a face mask, and the server wears one, too, the chances of transmission diminish almost to insignificance.
So, the question for black and brown communities should be this: How do we instill the social and existential value of face masks among black and brown people in King County? We have to overcome several obstacles—one is presented by, of course, the sheer stubbornness of American individualism; and another by the dead-end of Yankee masculinity. We can begin with the kind of direct community activism practiced this weekend by King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay. He, along with volunteers, distributed face masks in New Holly, a South Seattle neighborhood.
I love the South End. Delivering masks today in New Holly we met people who speak Vietnamese, Somali, Arabic, Tigrynia, and Spanish. Some even agreed to be in our video and translate a very important message in multiple languages:
You should wear a face covering in public! pic.twitter.com/HqMr5xIlET
— Girmay Zahilay (@GirmayZahilay) May 18, 2020
This needs to be done not only neighborhoods but at major hubs of transportation and food distribution. And it must be for all members of the community; brown, white, black, Asians. The resistance to face masks is common among all groups. One only has to visit the Safeways on Rainier Avenue to see this is indeed the case. But the function of face masks in these busy public spaces is to protect the essential workers, who tend to be underpaid.
I must here emphasize that the unevenness of bad COVID-19 practices is not only among races but also businesses, which is why they can't be left to decide on the enforcement of face masks. The reason will be made clear by this example: For about the past four weeks, I have noticed two food services in the Genesee Street/Rainier Avenue business center. One is corporate; the other is a small business. The corporate one is Domino's Pizza, and the other is Ezell's Chicken. The former will not let customers enter the premise. A buyer must wait outside for their pizza, a table is there for them to pick up an order, and the door is plastered with signs instructing buyers not to come inside.
These people are serious. And the workers inside all wear face masks. Ezell's, on the other hand, has a much smaller space than Domino's Pizza, but it permits people to enter (four at a time, but the business could hardly fit more than four anyway), wait, and order. Ezell's has none of the urgency about safety that's demonstrated at Domino's Pizza, a corporate entity. And the last time I peeked in Ezell's, May 8, the cashier was not wearing a face mask. The cook wore a face mask, but it dangled around her neck. Three of the Ezell's customers at that time, however (all white men), wore face masks; and one (a middle-aged black man), did not.
And now for the second way that brown and black people can be encouraged to protect others from themselves, which is what face masks come down to. It is through the emulation of the black and brown stars of popular culture. This approach would certainly be as effective as community activism; but at this stage of the pandemic, it's not reliable. For one reason, almost all mainstream male rappers are very much about the greatness and unstoppableness of their Yankee masculinity. And how can you man-up with a face mask on? Really? The hyper-male rapper will fear they look like a sissy. Keeping a face exposed in the middle of a pandemic looks like you are keeping it real. That sort of thing.
But this recalls a similar feeling that rappers of the golden age of hiphop (1983 to 1987) had with condoms during the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The jimmy was read as emasculating. But after it was clear that the government was going to do little to nothing about the rapid spread of the disease in the black community, male rappers, with support from female rappers, of the modern age (1988 to 1993) began challenging the deadly masculine/raw riding identity.
An excellent example can be found in the 1993 track "Ghetto Jam" by Domino:
But homies in the hood label her as a hood rat
So those with game can fuck
And ooh, she'll clown your ass real fast, if you're quick to nut
And when you're in that thii-ing
She'll make a nigga sii-ng
Duh-du-dway, duh-dum-dway, duh-dum-dway
But you don't hear me doe
Ain't nuthin wrong with being a Trojan man, when ya ridin
Best believe that Domino saved many young lives with that last line.
Let's end this post listening to that old boom-bap of "Ghetto Jam."