Oregon’s Lincoln County is an idyllic patch of country, set on the Pacific Ocean halfway between Portland and Eugene and home to about 50,000 residents.
But the tiny community this week found itself in national headlines after county officials passed a directive ordering all residents must wear face coverings when in public places in which they are likely to come within six feet of another person who is not from their own household.
Well, not all residents. “People of color” who are “worried about racial profiling and harassment due to wearing face coverings in public” were exempted in the directive.
The directive, passed on June 16, went viral after the New York Post posted a story with the headline: “Oregon county issues face mask order that exempts non-white people.”
By Wednesday, as the story spread, county officials were slammed with angry emails and phone calls. And now, the county has revised the directive and gotten rid of the exception, saying that it “does more harm than good.”
“We included the protections for those within our communities of color who historically, and often personally, found themselves the victims of harassment and violence,” the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners and County Management team said in a statement Wednesday evening. “We are shocked and appalled at the volume of horrifically racist commentary we have received regarding this policy exemption.”
The exception, local officials said, “was well-intentioned — a way for people worried about racial profiling to avoid that by having the option to not wear a mask, Lincoln County Commission spokesman Casey Miller,” The Coloradoan reported.
“I thought it was mindfully crafted,” said Miller. “The focus of the directive was really on the health aspect.”
“We passed this last week and didn’t hear much. And then all of a sudden, our call center blows up with people just yelling at whoever answers the phone,” Miller said. “We got so many angry emails and calls we’ve been totally overwhelmed. It’s been hard to do day-to-day work, like getting information to people worried about health, or getting a test, or getting a meal while they’re in quarantine.”
The county board of commissioners said the directive was making people of color “targets for more hate.”
“The county received several calls from leadership from our communities of color asking us to revise the policy — it was not providing them protection, but instead making them possible targets for more hate,” the board wrote. “We will not continue a directive and policies that were intended to assist but instead are a potential source of harm.”
Trevon Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University who is black, told CNN mandates to wear face coverings are “basically telling people to look dangerous given racial stereotypes that are out there. … This is in the larger context of black men fitting the description of a suspect who has a hood on, who has a face covering on.”
“It looks like almost every criminal sketch of any garden-variety black suspect,” said Logan. “We have a lot of examples of the presumed criminality of black men in general. And then we have the advice to go out in public in something that … can certainly be read as being criminal or nefarious, particularly when applied to black men.”
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