The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increasing number of Anti-Asian hate incidents, often spurred on by the rhetoric of President Trump and other Republicans. In new research, Kinga Makovi, Maria Abascal and Yao Xu examine which Americans acted on anti-Asian bias, and how long it persisted after the beginning of the pandemic. Using a survey experiment, they find that while in the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average American treated those who were Chinese-born worse than the US-born, by the fall of 2020, only Republicans did.
The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the lives of all Americans, but these changes were not felt equally by all. Significant inequalities emerged in health outcomes, with Black and Latino Americans experiencing higher COVID-19 case and death rates than white Americans, when accounting for age differences. And in the labor market, the pandemic impacted working mothers more than fathers. Asian Americans were also affected by the pandemic in unique ways. Anti-Asian hate incidents skyrocketed during the pandemic. Then-president Donald Trump used stigmatizing language toward Asians to describe the pandemic including, most famously, “China virus.” In March 2021, eight women in Atlanta, six of them Asian-origin, were killed in a mass shooting. These incidents seemed to indicate an undercurrent of anti-Asian bias among other Americans. But which Americans acted on these biases and how long after the start of pandemic did bias linger?
Examining anti-Asian discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic
We designed and fielded an experiment to study the question of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States. We recruited over 2,000 Americans and asked them to play a kind of incentivized experiment known as a “give-or-take dictator game” (DG). As part of this game, survey respondents were paired with a partner. Respondents and their partners both received real money, and respondents were asked to decide whether to give some of the money they had received to their partners, to take some of the money their partners had received, or to do nothing and maintain the status quo (partners were fictional, unbeknownst to the respondents).
We gave respondents information about their partner’s country of birth: about half of the respondents learned that their partner was born in China but lived in the United States; the rest learned that their partner was born and lived in the United States. The “generosity gap” between Chinese-born partners and US-born partners served as our measure of discrimination, i.e., unequal treatment. Respondents played the game in the spring of 2020 and again in the fall.
Our goal was to see whether respondents treated Chinese-born partners worse than US-born partners, by giving them less money or by taking more from them. We suspected that respondents who identified as Republicans would be especially ungenerous toward Chinese- versus US-born partners. Trump was just one of several Republicans––including Senator John Cornyn and Representative Paul Gosar––to talk about the pandemic in ways that stigmatized people of Asian origin. The average Republican may have been more receptive to these messages, whether because they already held more anti-Asian views or because they found the words of likeminded public figures more persuasive. In addition, in a polarized news environment, Republicans may simply have been more likely to come across these messages on their preferred news outlets, like Fox News.
Another possible explanation for anti-Asian discrimination highlights the role not of rhetoric by public figures, but of people’s innate tendency to protect themselves from contagion. According to the theory of the so-called “behavioral immune system,” an individual may avoid places and people––like foreigners––who might expose them to disease. This drive may be especially strong in people when they feel vulnerable or insecure. To study this, we looked at whether respondents whose health was poor or whose communities were experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases were especially ungenerous toward Chinese- versus US-born partners. Americans were also vulnerable during the pandemic for economic reasons, so we also looked at discrimination among respondents who had recently lost their jobs or who lived in communities where unemployment spiked during the pandemic.
“IMG_8961” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Elvert Barnes
Partisanship can explain discrimination towards Chinese-born Americans
We found that the average American gave relatively less to a Chinese-born partner than a US-born partner in the spring of 2020, but not in the fall of the same year. In addition, Americans whose poor health made them physically vulnerable to COVID-19 were not less generous to Chinese- versus US-born partners, nor were those in communities that experienced a surge of infections. By the same token, Americans who were economically vulnerable because they had recently lost their jobs were not less generous to Chinese- versus US-born partners, nor were those in communities that experienced greater job loss.
Instead, generosity toward Chinese- versus US-born Americans was better explained by participants’ partisanship. Whereas both Republicans and non-Republicans were less generous toward Chinese-born partners in the spring of 2020, the generosity gap between Chinese- and US-born partners was larger among Republicans. In addition, by the fall of 2020, non-Republicans were giving comparable amounts to Chinese- and US-born partners. Republicans, on the other hand, continued to give significantly less to Chinese-born partners than US-born ones. Republicans may hold more entrenched, more enduring anti-Asian sentiments, and they may have been more likely to come across or be persuaded by anti-Asian rhetoric from rightwing figures, or both may have been at play.
Our study tells only one part of the story of anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, and several features of our design limit the scope of the conclusions we can draw. For one, participants were paired with partners who allegedly lived in the United States but were born in China. But of course, many Chinese Americans were not born in China, and many Asian Americans do not have Chinese ancestry. We believe, though, that our results extend to Chinese Americans and even Asian Americans, regardless of their ancestry or place of birth. For example, other research shows that the “Americanness” of Asian Americans is routinely questioned, whereas that of White Americans is taken for granted. Our findings suggest that the pandemic confronted Chinese Americans, and probably Asian Americans, not only with stigmatizing language on social media and in the news, or with highly visible but relatively rare violent incidents, but with widespread and, in some cases, enduring anti-Asian bias from other Americans.
- This article is based on the paper, ‘Politics, not Vulnerability: Republicans Discriminated against Chinese-born Americans throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic’, in The Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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