An Asian American woman has reported that, after she coughed while waiting in line, a man behind her told her, “Watch it, chink.” A Chinese American doctor reports being followed to the subway by a man shouting, “Why are you Chinese people killing everyone? What is wrong with you? Why the fuck are you killing us?”
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing some minority groups in the United States to experience prejudice and discrimination. Asian Americans were the first to face the dual threat from the virus itself and from racism related to COVID-19, and these threats have since emerged for blacks living in the United States as well.
When it became clear that the virus had originated in China, President Trump labeled it the “Chinese Virus.” The connection between China and the coronavirus has led to an increase in hostile behavior towards Asian Americans, including incidents in which they have been assaulted, coughed on, shunned and told go back to your country.
Fears of COVID-19 have increased people’s prejudices and enabled people to feel more free to express those prejudices, but a strong response against these racist acts has also emerged. Asian American activists have declared that “my ethnicity is not a virus” and “I am not a virus.”
Black Americans have been facing another public health emergency for centuries: racism. The long history of both legal and illegal discrimination has created substantial wealth gaps between black and white Americans. This racism and poverty have created conditions in which black people are less healthy and receive poorer health care, which places them at greater risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. The widely reported statistic that black Americans face greater rates of death from COVID-19 could itself cause discrimination if people begin associating skin color with the threat of infection.
Experience of Prejudice and Discrimination in a National Study
These concerns prompted our survey examining how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people’s experiences of racism and mental health. At the end of April, 2020, we surveyed 4,149 people living in the United States. Participants came from all fifty states and included 309 Asian American, 378 black and 205 Latino men and women. The Asian American sample included 100 Chinese participants. Although our methods do not allow us to test some of the issues noted above—such as whether black people and Asians are contracting COVID-19 at a higher rate or are actually experiencing greater discrimination due to COVID-19—we can assess people’s beliefs about whether or not they have experienced discrimination because of perceived links between their ethnicity and COVID-19. This approach builds on other research conducted in mid-March 2020, which found that 14% of Asians and 10% of black people, but only 6% of Hispanics and 4% of whites, reported that they were experiencing unfair discrimination or treatment due to people thinking that they might have coronavirus.
We asked people to think about whether they had experienced any incidents of prejudice or discrimination since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked them to focus on incidents that they thought were connected to their ethnicity and COVID-19. For example, we asked whether “people have told me to ‘go back to my country’ or that I don’t belong in this country (for reasons I think were related to my ethnicity and COVID-19).”
A notable minority of Asian and black participants reported that people made rude comments directed at them (13% Asian, 20% black), felt unwelcome somewhere (21%, 22%), were told to go back to their country (9%, 18%) and/or were physically threatened (6%, 18%). They also reported that their close friends or family had experienced rude comments (15%, 20%) and/or felt unwelcome somewhere (18%, 19%).
About one-third of Asian Americans (32%) reported experiencing at least one such incident since the start of the pandemic. Thirty-eight percent of the Chinese American participants reported experiencing such incidents. Black participants reported slightly lower rates (26%) and Latinos were the least likely to experience them (14%).
Qualitative Findings From the Survey
We asked participants to give examples of the incidents that they had experienced. The stories ranged from subtle aggressions—such as feeling stared at or finding that people moved away from them more than they did from others at grocery stores, to being pointed to, all the way up to verbal and physical altercations. Some reported being told on the subway that they were “probably infected and spreading the diseases to other races” and others that people yelled “Chinese Virus” at them as they jogged by.
For some of the incidents, the speaker did not explicitly mention COVID-19, but the participant interpreted their acts as motivated by perceived connections between COVID-19 and their ethnicity. For example, getting “sprayed by Febreze while riding the subway,” being told to “eat dogs and die” or being looked at with “faces of disgust” as people tried to distance themselves from the speaker.
Links Between Racism and Mental Health
Being the target of racism can increase people’s stress and anxiety. After one such incident, an Asian American woman reported that she is “scared every day and feeling anxious every day, even to just walk my dog.” Another Asian American woman reported that her father was confronted by a woman while jogging on a trail. The woman “threw a log at him, accused him of being sick, told him to ‘go back to China,’ and spat at him.” She said that it is “definitely an extra layer of stress” to have to worry about her parents facing racism.
Participants in our study who reported experiencing more racism also reported greater anxiety, depression and negative emotions. These patterns were found even when controlling for possible third variables, such as age, income, education, rural vs. urban living settings, unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and perceptions of the prevalence of COVID-19 in their area.
Combating Negative Impacts of Racism Connected to COVID-19
Sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the past several weeks have shown a massive national wave of protests to address racism in the United States. While the nation makes strides in social progress, it is essential to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and that there is a connection between racism and people’s mental and physical health during the pandemic. One thing is certain: it is our civic responsibility to stay informed and educated in order to further decrease the impacts of racism and COVID-19 on people living in the United States.
Image by PIRO4D