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'China virus' rhetoric caused sharp anti-Asian bias increase, report shows

NBC News logo NBC News 9/29/2020 Kimmy Yam
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A recent study shows that rampant use of the “China virus" to refer to the coronavirus, particularly by conservative outlets, had a profound impact on how those in the United States see Asian Americans.

The research, published in the journal Health Education & Behavior, examined racially charged coronavirus coverage in media and its impact on bias against Asian Americans. While anti-Asian bias had been in steady decline for over a decade, the trend reversed in days after a significant uptick in discriminatory coronavirus speech. The language led to an increased subconscious belief that Asian Americans are “perpetual foreigners,” researchers said.

“Research suggests that when people see Asian Americans as being more ‘foreign,’ they are more likely to express hostility toward them and engage in acts of violence and discrimination,” Rucker Johnson, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the study, told NBC Asian America.

For the study, entitled “After ‘The China Virus’ Went Viral,” researchers looked at “implicit Americanness bias,” or the ease with which respondents linked Asian American and European American faces with American or foreign symbols. It found that from 2007 through early 2020, the subconscious belief that European Americans are more “American” than Asian American individuals steadily declined.

However researchers observed a trend reversal on March 8, the day Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., tweeted about the “Wuhan virus.” The timing also coincided with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s interview the day before on "Fox and Friends," in which he referred to the “China virus." In February, the World Health Organization had cautioned against using such language, warning that it could stigmatize an entire people.

What followed, the research shows, was a 650 percent increase in Twitter retweets using the term “Chinese virus” and similar language. On March 9, there was an 800 percent increase in such rhetoric among conservative media outlets. The language continued to be repeated by conservative social and news media channels throughout the month.

The study noted that the trend reversal was influential enough to offset more than three years of declines in bias.

“Progress against bias is generally stable,” another researcher, Eli Michaels, said. “But this particular rhetoric, which associates a racial group with a global pandemic, has particularly pernicious effects.”

Researchers said that the trend wasn’t necessarily uniform across all groups. Michaels explained that the researchers separated their analysis by political identification, allowing the group to identify the specific impact of media’s stigmatizing language.

“Conservative individuals, who are more likely to consume media that utilized stigmatizing terminology, saw a larger trend shift,” Michaels explained.

The yearslong decline in bias could have to do with better Asian American representation, Sean Darling-Hammond, another researcher who worked on the study, said. Biases generally tend to soften when people consume media that depicts minority groups in a positive light, he said.

In the years that anti-Asian bias was diminishing, several movements for Asian representation catalyzed, helping to spur major culturally significant media successes, including TV shows like the sitcom “Fresh off the Boat,” and the talk show ”Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” as well as blockbuster movie hits like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell.” “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon Ho, this year became the first foreign language film to take home the Oscar for best picture.

Darling-Hammond also said that positive interactions with members of minority groups can also have a hand in chipping away at biases. Because of social distancing during the pandemic, Covid-19 “arguably created the perfect storm to reverse trends and immediately begin to increase anti-Asian bias," he said.

“The decline in social interaction reduced opportunities for interracial contact, and the huge increase in stigmatizing language negatively shifted the tenor of media related to Asian individuals," Darling-Hammond said.

Thus far, Asian Americans have experienced an onslaught of attacks during the pandemic. The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate collected 2,583 incidents of discrimination from March 19 to Aug. 5. A youth-led study from the initiative revealed that one-quarter of Asian American young adults have been the targets of racism over the past year.

Johnson said that such long-term discrimination could have negative health consequences. He pointed out that babies born to women with Arabic names after the 9/11 attacks experienced worse birth outcomes, as did children born to Latinx mother following a large ICE raid.

“When we experience chronic racial discrimination, it can cause toxic psychosocial stress and yield lifelong impacts on mental and physical health,” he said. “But we do not have to be prisoners of the moment to understand this phenomenon. Past events and research show that an environment of stigma can have negative health consequences. … Our words and actions matter.”

Anthony Ocampo, a sociologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University, said that the research demonstrates that “Asian Americans will never ‘become’ white.” The stereotype that Asian Americans are somehow close to whiteness is, as the study shows, fraught, Ocampo added.

“With one major national crisis, the racial perception of Asian Americans has been turned on its own head. The continued insistence of ‘China virus’ by our own president has reignited stereotypes about Asian Americans that have existed for well over a century — that we are perpetually foreign, that we are not American,” he said. “It's also shown us how, for people of color, the meaning of racial identity can change instantaneously at the whim of white supremacists who happen to have power."

To reverse the trend so that anti-Asian bias is once again on a decline, Michaels said that first, stigmatizing language about Covid-19 like “China virus” needs to end, emphasizing that such language was largely generated by prominent elected officials. She recommended that people hold such elected officials accountable to avoid such divisive rhetoric. Johnson added that people need to shift from an “us versus them” narrative to “we.” Michaels also urged people to seek out, produce and advocate for media that elevates the Asian American community and depicts them in a positive light.

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