And this trend isn’t happening just in the United States. In Australia — an English-speaking country where 12 percent of the population is of Asian descent, and where immigration policies also have an exclusionary history — nearly 1 in 5 Chinese Australians report physical or verbal abuse since the pandemic began. Anti-Asian sentiment is a global concern, our research finds.
The “model minority” stereotype often makes it easy for people to dismiss the threat against Asians — we tend to connote, inaccurately, moderate economic success with an immunity to racial discrimination. Yet Asians have long been subjected to stereotypes of being “foreign,” which can lead to discrimination and violence.
Former president Donald Trump frequently called coronavirus the “China virus” and “kung flu,” despite policymakers’ and public health officials’ pleas to avoid attaching locations or ethnicities to the disease. The return of overt forms of racism and racial violence, while unsurprising, has left the larger Asian American community scared and demanding change.
Our research looks at anti-Asian sentiment — both subtle and overt — at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and Australia. We learned that anti-Asian bias is similarly present in both countries, though political partisanship played a crucial role in the U.S.
How we researched anti-Asian bias
To understand anti-Asian bias during the ongoing pandemic, we conducted nationally representative online surveys in the United States and Australia. We surveyed 1,060 Americans and 1,375 Australians in September 2020 through YouGov, which conducts public opinion surveys across 40 countries.
Our U.S. and Australian surveys capture a diverse set of respondents across racial groups and national origins, though they are predominantly White (34 percent of the U.S. sample is non-White; over 15 percent of the Australian sample is likely foreign-born). Australia emerged as a global leader in covid-19 containment, while the U.S. struggled to contain new surges in infection. In September 2020, the state of Victoria was under strict lockdown, but Australia’s overall infection rates were very low relative to the United States, as the figure below reveals. Other Australian states remained open, with infection rates close to zero.
We tested anti-Asian sentiment two ways. First, we asked respondents to rank their level of concern, from a low of 1, not at all worried, to 5, extremely worried, to the following question: “How worried are you about catching covid-19 from people who belong to the following groups?” (1) Asian Americans [Asian Australians]; (2) White Americans [White Australians]; (3) African Americans [African Australians].”
Because people are often unlikely to report socially undesirable responses like racial bias, we used something social scientists call a list experiment to capture unconscious anti-Asian bias. We included the following statement, randomly assigning respondents to one of two groups: “Below is a list of venues you might normally visit for a meal or to meet friends. After you read all four (five), just tell us how many of these venues you would be concerned about visiting because of the risk of catching coronavirus (covid-19)?” The control group was given the following four items: (1) Italian restaurant, (2) nightclub, (3) gym, (4) Indian restaurant. The treatment group received a fifth item — a Chinese restaurant — to understand how its addition affected survey respondents’ level of worry.
Here’s what we learned about bias against people of Asian descent
Despite the greater magnitude of covid-19 in the U.S., our survey results show that anti-Asian bias was similarly present in Australia. In fact, Australians expressed a slightly higher level of anxiety about catching covid-19 from Asians, with an average response of 2.74 out of 5, compared to 2.53 among Americans. Similarly, slightly more Australians (46 percent) than Americans (39 percent) would have avoided a Chinese restaurant. Thus, even though covid-19 had been largely contained in Australia, Australians still feared the risk of being infected by Asians.
In the United States, we found political partisanship was critical in explaining overt and subtle anti-Asian sentiment. Relative to Democrats, Republicans expressed greater worry of catching covid-19 from Asian Americans relative to other racial groups, though they were less likely to avoid any venues, including Chinese restaurants.
By contrast, Democrats in our survey expressed worry about catching covid-19 from all racial groups, but relatively less worry from Asian Americans compared to White Americans. Democrats avoided more venues under covid-19 and perceived an equal level of danger from Chinese restaurants as from other venues. Approximately 45 percent of Democrats avoided Chinese restaurants for fear of catching the coronavirus.
What does this tell us about anti-Asian bias?
Our research show that Anti-Asian sentiment is evident in two countries with colonial legacies and institutionalized White supremacy, consistent with other research in countries with similar histories, including Canada, New Zealand and Britain. In Australia, despite a better pandemic response, including fewer infections and deaths and a smaller economic recession, there is evidence of anti-Asian bias. U.S. Republicans in our survey, compared to Democrats, express more overtly a fear of Asian Americans as disease carriers. However, Democrats are more likely to avoid visiting multiple types of venues, including Chinese restaurants.
For Asian communities in the United States and Australia, these unmitigated fears have created a double whammy, by hollowing out Chinatowns and Asian businesses — and generating a greater fear of random, racially motivated attacks and violence. Our survey findings from the two countries show that the pandemic may have triggered historical stereotypes about Asians, while rising anti-Asian sentiment is deepening broader discriminatory narratives around the world.
Leah Ruppanner (@leahruppanner) is an associate professor at the University of Melbourne and author of “Motherlands: How States Push Mothers out of Employment” (Temple University Press, 2020).