Pandemic concerns may prime people to discriminate against Asians and Latinos

People who are primed to think about the COVID-19 pandemic are more likely to discriminate against Asian and Latino Americans, a new study suggests.

The findings, described this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlight yet another way that the pandemic has ramped up discrimination against racial and ethnic minority groups — one that may be as widespread as it is difficult to detect.

“What it shows is that concerns about COVID in general have the potential to hurt any group that is perceived as ‘immigrant’ or ‘foreigner,'” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at UC Riverside who was not involved in the work. This could explain “why we see concerns and reports about hate incidents in surveys *) Latinos Asians and other communities o color,” he stated.

It’s no secret that anti-Asian violence has risen across the U.S. since the pandemic began. Inflammatory rhetoric by former President Trump that demonized immigrants and blamed China for the pandemic served to vilify a group of Americans based on their ethnic heritage. And in cities around the U.S., reports of violence directed at Asian Americans soared by 164% in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period a year prior.

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Even in California, where more than 15% of residents have Asian ancestry, reported incidents jumped by 107% in 2020, according to a report from the state attorney general. The new study was done by the state attorney general to determine if discrimination against Asians and other minorities is less common but more widespread in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“Has pandemic caused more everyday forms of social discrimination against Asians?” they wrote. “Additionally, although many consider East Asians the primary victims of COVID-19-related racism, has pandemic-related discrimination affected other racial/ethnic minority groups as well?”

These questions are difficult to answer because people won’t be honest if they ask them if they discriminate. That’s because people who do treat others differently based on their race or ethnicity might be reluctant to acknowledge it, said Neeraj Kaushal, an economist at Columbia University who co-led the study with colleague Yao Lu, a sociologist. So the researchers tried a different approach.

In August of 2020, they sent a survey to 5,000 American adults via YouGov, a public opinion research firm. The majority of respondents were white.

Half of the surveys began with a short paragraph about the state of the pandemic, followed by several questions about how COVID-19 had affected the health, employment and earnings of themselves and their families. This way, COVID-19 would be top of mind when the respondents got to the survey’s third section.

In the final section, participants were asked to picture that they were looking to find a roommate in “Big City” and had posted an online ad for one. The participants were then shown an email response from a hypothetical person whose name indicated their race or ethnicity. (The gender of the prospective roommate corresponded to that of the survey taker. )

After reading the randomly chosen responses, which were all identical except for their names, participants were asked questions about the potential roommate’s financial stability and cultural compatibility. They were also asked questions about their responsibility, courteousness, and financial stability. Participants were also asked to rate their likelihood of responding to the person and whether or not they would be interested in living with them. They responded on a 0-to-10 scale, with 10 representing “extremely” and 0 representing “not at all.”

This is the “experimental” version. The other half of the surveys switched the reading order and placed the questions about potential roommates at the top. Only after they were answered did participants read the information about COVID-19 and contemplate its impact on their lives.

The researchers found a striking effect among those who were extremely unlikely to respond to or consider an Asian or Hispanic room-seeker (that is, those who scored their answers as 0, 1 or 2 on that 10-point scale).

For example, 11.4% of those who had been primed to think about COVID-19 before considering a potential roommate indicated a strong unwillingness to respond to Latino room seekers — far higher than the 4.7% of participants in the control group who shared this view.

The pandemic-primed group was also more likely to be very unwilling to respond to East Asian room-seekers (9.7% vs 4.3%), as well as to South Asians (11.1% vs 7.1%).

The effect was also seen for other questions. For example, 14.4% of primed participants indicated they were extremely uninterested in living with a Latino roommate, compared with 6.3% of the control group. The same effect held toward South Asians (15.6% vs 9.9%) and East Asians (14.1% vs 7%).

In all three cases, survey-takers perceived members of these minority groups to be “extremely culturally uncompatible” because they were thinking about the pandemic.

“Additionally, the two Asian groups were more likely to be disparaged as extremely irresponsible and discourteous,” and Latinos and South Asians were more likely to be viewed as financially unstable.

COVID-19-priming, however, didn’t seem to have an effect on prejudice or intent to discriminate against white or Black room-seekers, the authors found. The authors offered a possible explanation. They wrote that

“Whites were perceived as the most ‘American’, followed by Blacks. These two groups may be less susceptible to pandemic-related discrimination, especially if it is rooted within xenophobia

These findings suggest that the pandemic is increasing anti-foreigner sentiment. People in these groups, regardless of their citizenship or how long their family has lived in the U.S.A, are seen in some quarters to be “perpetual foreigners,” according to the study authors.

The researchers also looked at whether factors such as their political views and contact with minority groups prior to the pandemic, along with the political progress and ethnic diversity in their home counties — could have influenced their perceptions of their potential roommate.

They found that while reminders of COVID-19 increased negative attitudes toward Latinos, prior social contact with them seemed to reduce that negative effect.

The negative views of Asians that were not influenced by sociopolitical factors was not the same.

Usually, greater contact with minority populations reduces prejudice, said Min Zhou, a sociologist at UCLA who was not involved in the study.

“But it doesn’t matter for Asians because of China,” she said, pointing out that the pandemic has led to a worsening relationship between the U.S. and China. “That imagined enemy or real enemy — it’s very powerful, at this moment.”

Zhou drew an example from not-too-distant U.S. history: the negative attitudes directed toward Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Those sentiments resulted in a policy that sent more than 110,000 people to internment camps.

Reducing anti-minority bias moving forward will ultimately require more research that identifies the many levels — both extreme and everyday — on which this kind of prejudice and discrimination operates.

” “If we want to reduce prejudice, then we need to get to the root,” Zhou stated.

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