COVID-19-related discrimination has dropped from its peak in April but still persists for Asian, Black and Latino Americans, new research suggests — and experts say there are steps anyone can take to help eradicate it.
Asian Americans in early June were more than twice as likely as white Americans (13% versus 5%) to report having recently experienced COVID-19-associated discrimination, according to results from the ongoing Understanding Coronavirus in America Study conducted by USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR). Black (9%) and Latino Americans (9%) were nearly twice as likely as white people to report this experience.
The survey measured perceived COVID-19-associated discrimination by whether respondents said they had been treated with less respect and courtesy than others, experienced people acting afraid of them, were harassed or threatened, or received poorer service at stores or restaurants due to “people thinking they might have the coronavirus.”
“This discrimination that’s associated with COVID-19 is real, and it’s serious,” Ying Liu, a research scientist at CESR, told MarketWatch. “Though it seems like the trend is trending downward a little bit, still we see a substantial amount of people are still experiencing discrimination now, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities. … The racial disparity we see is still very persistent.”
Risk factors for experiencing coronavirus-related discrimination
A new peer-reviewed study, co-authored by Liu and published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, analyzed nationally representative data from 3,665 respondents to March and April surveys from the same data source. It found that overall perceptions of discrimination related to COVID-19 rose from 4% to 10% between March and April, with Black and Asian Americans more likely than other groups to say they had experienced it.
Meanwhile, perceiving COVID-19-related discrimination was associated with heightened mental distress, the study found, as measured by respondents’ feelings of anxiety and depression.
“Elevated risk among Asians in March confirms the media reports on hate crimes,” Liu and her co-authors wrote.
“Non-Hispanic blacks are another group who persistently experience more [COVID-19-associated discrimination], and their risk increased from March to April,” they added. “This could reflect the longstanding stereotypes associating non-Hispanic blacks with the spread of infectious diseases, while the increased risk in April could be attributable to media coverage on their disproportionately higher mortality rate due to COVID-19.”
Moreover, face-mask wearers more likely than non-face-mask wearers to perceive COVID-related discrimination. This confirmed “media reports on the stigmatization of mask wearing during the pandemic, reflecting longstanding bias in the West and contradicting public messaging across different disease control phases,” the authors wrote.
Heavy social media users were also potentially at greater risk than non-social media users for perceiving this type of discrimination, as were people who worked outside and wore face masks compared to those who didn’t work.
‘We have these historical racist images of these two groups that have been a part of our country for a long time, and we have the current realities of what’s going on with COVID-19. Both of these are influencing the experiences that Asian Americans and Black Americans are reporting.’
— Marya Mtshali, a Harvard University lecturer in women, gender and sexuality studies
The study defined COVID-19-associated discrimination as self-reported perception of “discrimination toward people who share social or behavioral characteristics with COVID-19 patients but may not carry the novel virus.” As the researchers note, this type of discrimination first surfaced in online anti-Chinese rhetoric and in surging reports of racist incidents targeting Asian Americans. The novel coronavirus was first observed in Wuhan, China.
A recent Pew Research Center survey showed a similar trend, finding that 39% of Asian Americans and 38% of Black Americans — compared to 27% of Hispanic Americans and 13% of white Americans — said people had acted uncomfortable around them because of their race or ethnicity since the COVID-19 outbreak. Asian and Black Americans were also more likely to report being the subject of jokes or slurs, and fearing threats or physical attacks.
When it came to worrying others might be suspicious of them if they wore a mask in public because of their race or ethnicity, 42% of Black respondents and 36% of Asian respondents reported feeling this way, according to the Pew survey, in contrast to 23% of Hispanic respondents and 5% of white respondents.
‘Fear doesn’t excuse people behaving very poorly’
“We have these historical racist images of these two groups that have been a part of our country for a long time, and we have the current realities of what’s going on with COVID-19,” Marya Mtshali, a Harvard University lecturer on women, gender and sexuality studies, told MarketWatch. “Both of these are influencing the experiences that Asian Americans and Black Americans are reporting.”
Mtshali traced the origins of this discrimination, in part, back to historical racist imagery of Asian Americans related to lack of cleanliness and contagious disease. The fact that COVID-19 cases were first reported in China, she said, “feeds into these unfair racist stereotypes of Asian Americans being harbingers of disease.” “When people may think of Asian Americans in regards to COVID-19, we have a lot of these things readily available to pull from our culture that we associate with Asian Americans that can result in fear,” she said.
Longstanding stereotypical associations of Blackness with criminality may also play a role, Mtshali added. When some people see a Black person adhering to public-health guidance by wearing a scarf or bandana as a makeshift face covering, they might respond with fear, she said; at the same time, reports of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans could also be leading some people to unfairly fear that Black people they encounter might have coronavirus, she said.
“To make it very clear, fear doesn’t excuse people behaving very poorly,” Mtshali said. Just as many white people are struggling with coronavirus-induced job loss and concerns of getting sick, so too are many minority communities, she said — and “to have to add this public-health issue of racism and discrimination on top of that just makes things worse for these communities.”
Richard Reddick, the associate dean for equity, community engagement and outreach at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, said that scapegoating was “an unfortunate legacy of pandemics.” He also pointed to President Trump’s previous embrace of the term “Chinese virus,” which experts warned could lead to discrimination against Asian Americans.
‘Promoting mask wearing might help not just with preventing new infections, but also with preventing this type of discrimination.’
— Ying Liu, a research scientist at USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research
Trump more recently has referred to COVID-19 using the racist term “kung flu.” (Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany last month denied that the president had used racist language in describing the coronavirus. “What the president does do is point to the fact that the origin of the virus was China,” she said. “It’s a fair thing to point out.”)
“Leadership matters,” Reddick said. The country’s top leaders making clear that such discrimination is unacceptable, and avoiding attaching a nationality to a virus that has spread globally, “would have helped blunt some of these discussions,” he said.
During the same June 22 briefing, McEnany said, “The President has said very clearly, it’s ‘important that we totally protect our Asian [American] community in the U.S. and all around the world. They’re amazing people, and the spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way, shape, or form. They’re working closely with us to get rid of it. We will prevail together. It’s very important.’”
How you can help fight COVID-19-related discrimination
Wear a mask and encourage others to do so. This can help reduce the stigma associated with masks, Liu said. “Promoting mask wearing might help not just with preventing new infections, but also with preventing this type of discrimination,” she said, pointing to her study findings. “If everyone wears it, you won’t have a second look if the person next to you wears it.”
After all, Mtshali said, “this will be the rest of 2020,” and possibly even 2021. “It’s something that we need to get used to, and we need to normalize it so it’s not associated with anything outside of just being a good member of your community and protecting others.” Wearing your own mask reminds others to wear theirs as well, she added.
Speak up when you witness racism. It’s important to call out racism as a bystander, Mtshali said, and make the people around you understand that such actions and words are not OK. While it can be uncomfortable to intervene with friends and family, silence often equals acceptance, she said.
“We’re talking about this a lot in regards to Black Lives Matter in this current moment, and trying to be more proactive at being anti-racist,” Mtshali said. “[But] when we talk about being anti-racist, it’s important to understand we’re talking about all races, not just one particular race.”
Educate yourself on the history of racism in the U.S. When most Americans hear racist rhetoric today, “they don’t understand that it’s part of this longer racist history,” Mtshali said. She recommended reading “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White” by Frank Wu and “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” by Ronald Takaki.
“It would be really good for folks to crack open a book or two,” Reddick agreed, and to realize that “in times of pandemics, in times of great worldwide fear, scapegoating is a very common tactic that’s used to blame somebody.” He recommended an earlier book by Takaki, “Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans.”
“The more knowledge we have, we’re able to then identify these racist tropes and call them out for what they are,” Mtshali said.