The researchers ― who looked at the opinions of more than 1,140 adults living across the U.S. of both major political affiliations ― also found that people who had less accurate knowledge about the virus and less trust in science reported more negative attitudes toward Asians.
Trump continues to refer to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” a dog-whistle misnomer critics say the president uses to dodge criticism over his administration’s failures in addressing the pandemic. Trump ― who has also called the virus the “Kung Flu” ― claims his rhetoric is directed at China, where the virus originated, and not meant to disparage or harm Asian Americans.
But the new research suggests otherwise, according Berkeley Franz, the study’s co-author and an assistant professor at Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Ohio University.
“What is most compelling about our findings is that public health messaging from leaders has real and important consequences, not only for believing COVID-19 is serious or understanding how it is transmitted, but also for shaping attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S,” Franz told HuffPost.
Advocacy groups who have been collecting reports of harassment and attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (referred to as the AAPI community) since the pandemic’s beginning say that Trump’s language only further fuels anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia.
Stop AAPI Hate reported that as of June 3, incidents of anti-Asian American discrimination documented across the U.S. approached 2,066 since early March. Of those incidents, approximately half of the perpetrators specifically mentioned the terms “China” or “Chinese.” (For instance, “Go back to China.”)
In Franz’s study, respondents were asked about their attitudes and bias toward Asian Americans. Questions included: How likely are you to order food from a restaurant with primarily Asian employees? How likely are you to sit next to an Asian person on a bus or other public transportation? How much have you attempted to limit interactions with Asian customers or coworkers, or intentionally move farther away from an Asian individual while in a public place?
Those polled were also asked to rate how much they trusted science and scientists and how much they trusted Trump (ranging from no trust at all to complete trust in the source).
The researchers hypothesized that trust in the president might increase exposure to messages that frame the virus in terms of its country of origin (the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus).
They also hypothesized that downplaying science and emphasizing the Asian origin of the virus would serve to stoke bias toward out-groups ― in this case, Asian Americans.
They were right on both counts. Although other countries have dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks that were similar in severity to what occurred in China ― Italy, in particular, and Iran ― the study found that distrust of Asians (Chinese and Koreans) was higher than distrust of Italians or Iranians.
“By asking questions about how safe people felt around those groups, we could capture if people had come to associate the risk of the virus with people of Asian descent rather than people from countries with just as much spread of the virus,” said Lindsay Y. Dhanani, the study’s other co-author and an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio University.
As racist attacks against Asians continue to be reported, Dhanni said she hopes that the study will draw attention to the problem.
“I hope it really highlights that, on top of the stress that comes with living through a pandemic, Asian Americans are also being vilified and having to navigate really challenging experiences,” she said.
Recently, a few of those discriminatory attacks have made national headlines: In early July, the CEO of a San Francisco tech startup was caught on camera unloading on an Asian family who sat near him at a restaurant in Monterey, California.
When asked to leave the restaurant, the man, Michael Lofthouse, could be heard saying, “Trump’s going to fuck you! ... You fuckers need to leave.”
At the end of July, a protest was held after two men in New York’s Brooklyn borough slapped an 89-year-old Chinese American in the face as she left her home, then tried to set her on fire.
To curb anti-Asian bigotry, the New York Police Department announced the launch of an Asian Hate Crime Task Force. Because of language barriers and fear of the police, many victims have been reluctant to speak with officers during investigations, the NYPD said.
Those within the Asian communities are looking for short-term solutions, too. In New York’s Chinatown, residents Gilbert Chan and Barbara Yau recently handed out over 500 personal safety alarms at an apartment complex housing low-income senior citizens. They’re calling their campaign “Safe From Hate.”
“It’s incredibly sad that we felt the need to arm our elderly and other vulnerable populations with a safety device,” Chan, who self-funded the campaign with Yau, told HuffPost. “Hopefully, we’ve given them confidence to carry on their daily routine for something as simple as buying groceries or taking a stroll in their own neighborhood.”
In San Francisco, a group of volunteers, many of them former U.S. veterans, formed SF Peace Collective to patrol the streets of that’s city’s Chinatown and offer assistance to the vulnerable elderly residents there.
“It not only inspires and empowers the community and others to take action and be proactive, but also provides a sense of safety and security because nobody should have to live in fear,” the group’s founder, Max Leung, told NBC News in March. “For them to know that there are actually people out there who care is important.”
Solutions to hate crimes can’t just come from within the communities directly affected by them, though. The language politicians employ to talk about the virus needs to change or the continued scapegoating of Asian Americans will continue, experts say.
“When Trump calls it the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus,” he makes it easy to blame someone else instead,” said Therese Mascardo, a psychologist of Filipino descent who works within the Asian American community. “It’s unfortunately typical human nature for people to search for someone to blame for their frustrations and hardships.”
Finding a scapegoat gives some a sense of control, she said. With little information to make sense of what’s going on, creating a story about who is to blame provides reassurance. (Indeed, the Ohio University study found that those who were less informed on the virus were more prone to express anti-Asian sentiment.)
“It can be difficult to accept that this pandemic is happening just because pandemics happen ― that truth makes us feel powerless and out of control,” Mascardo said. “Now, instead of being powerless, we have identified an enemy to our wellbeing — a ‘bad guy’ that we can focus our frustrations and aggressions on.”
To counter such a harmful ideology and the hate speech it spurs on, Americans need to look at racist incidents as an American problem and not just an “Asian American problem,” she added.
Many seem to understand that. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, roughly four-in-10 U.S. adults say it has become more common for people to express racist views toward Asians since the pandemic began. Now, that recognition needs to be coupled with action, Mascardo said.
“I’d tell people to speak up when you see racism happening. Don’t give in to the ‘bystander effect,’ where we think someone else is going to do something and so we release ourselves of responsibility,” she said. “We need to stop waiting around for someone else to fix racism and discrimination.”
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