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Americans who are biased against Asians are more likely to fear the coronavirus

Hearing leaders’ anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric may boost that anxiety.

- April 1, 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic cripples the nation, President Trump and some prominent Republicans have been referring to covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” the “Chinese virus,” and the “Kung Flu.”

In rural Kansas, a county commissioner said his community was generally safe because there aren’t many Chinese people there. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) blamed the virus on fictions about Chinese culinary habits, saying Chinese people eat bats, snakes and dogs.

While the president recently read a statement asking Americans to protect Asian Americans from racist attacks, saying they’re not to blame for the virus, his son Donald Trump Jr. shortly thereafter posted a “Kung-Flu Kid” video of his father crane-kicking the coronavirus. And just last week, the Group of Seven could not reach an agreement on a joint statement about the pandemic because the Trump administration insisted on referring to covid-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” — a term other world leaders rejected as needlessly divisive.

These racial “dog whistles” — including linking outgroups with germs and disease — are part of a long political history of demonizing foreigners as threatening and dangerous. Anecdotally, these racial appeals appear to be having real social and political consequences. In the early stages of the pandemic, before the general lockdowns, the news media reported significant drops in visits to Chinese restaurants. More recently, Asian Americans are increasingly reporting being verbally or physically attacked.

Yet it remained unclear how broadly xenophobia was shaping early responses to the coronavirus in the mass public in the United States. We designed a survey to find out.

How we did our research

Between March 12 and 15, we conducted an online survey of over 4,000 Americans using Lucid. The survey was stratified along demographics and then weighted to ensure it represented the U.S. population. Our survey included widely-used questions tapping into xenophobia that we combined into a scale, what researchers call “feeling thermometers” that measure how “warm” or favorable respondents felt toward Chinese people, Asian Americans and other groups, and a series of coronavirus-related behavior and attitude questions.

We first looked at the association between xenophobia, anti-Asian attitudes and a respondent’s being “very worried” about themselves or a family member contracting the coronavirus. After controlling for level of education, interest in politics, party affiliation, economic concerns and more, we found that people with xenophobic attitudes are more likely to be very worried about contracting the illness.

More important, we found that people with unfavorable attitudes toward Chinese people, and toward Asian Americans more generally, are significantly more likely to report being “very worried” about coronavirus than those who feel more warmly toward the groups. In contrast, we find no relationship in our models between unfavorable attitudes toward Latinos or African Americans and concerns about coronavirus.

Next, we looked at whether being around Asian Americans led to being more worried about catching the virus. The answer is yes. Even after controlling for population density and several other factors, respondents who said they had casual contact with Asian Americans “every day” were eight percentage points more likely to be “very concerned.” In other words, just being around Asian American people strikes some people as threatening.

On the other hand, those who reported more intimate social contact with Asian Americans, such as sharing a meal are statistically less likely to say they are “very concerned,” again controlling for group-specific prejudice and xenophobia. Meaningful interactions, therefore, might help dispel stereotypes and inoculate the public against xenophobic elite rhetoric.

Can anti-Asian rhetoric about the pandemic “activate” prejudice and encourage mistreatment?

Our models rely on the assumption that worrying about the coronavirus doesn’t itself cause people to feel more anti-Asian or to avoid contact with Asian Americans. We cannot tease out those potentially mutually reinforcing effects in a single survey. However, our survey was conducted before the national emergency declaration and before the international travel restrictions, so it more closely approximates baseline attitudes. Eventually, we plan to re-interview our respondents and learn more.

Meanwhile, we suspect that hearing leaders voice anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric is “activating” existing anti-Asian American prejudice in the short term, linking it with fears about illness, rather than substantially changing how people in general feel toward the group. Similar research has shown, for example, that the anti-immigrant attitudes that Trump successfully mobilized into votes existed before he came along.

Whichever came first, rhetoric scapegoating Asians and Asian Americans for the pandemic could increasingly spur anti-Asian prejudice and increase discrimination, hate crimes, or worse.

Tyler Reny (@tylerreny) is a PhD candidate in political science at UCLA and conducts research on the causes and consequences of racial attitudes in American politics.

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Matt Barreto (@realMABarreto) is a professor of political science and Chicana/o studies at UCLA and co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions.