Commentary: Attacks on Asian Americans a new contagion

Recent polls show an increase of negative views toward Asians, most pronounced among Republicans.

By Robert Griffin, John Sides and Michael Tesler / Special To The Washington Post

When confronted with unfamiliar and dangerous infectious diseases, many Americans look for someone to blame; and historically, foreign people and countries have been a target.

Although President Trump finally declared, in late March, that the novel coronavirus was not the “fault” of the “Asian American community in the United States,” he had spent several weeks using and defending the term “Chinese virus” instead of a more neutral, technical phrase, and even defended those who called it “Kung flu.” Some conservatives persist in calling it the “Wuhan virus.”

As the crisis mounted in this country, Asian Americans have reported being threatened, yelled at, spat on and attacked.

New data from a large national survey called Nationscape makes clear that negative views of both Asian people and China specifically are on the rise, paralleling the reports of public attacks and slurs. The trend is evident among both Democrats and Republicans, though it appears to be more severe among members of the GOP.

A joint project of the Democracy Fund and UCLA, Nationscape has been interviewing more than 6,000 American adults a week since July on a range of political topics. One set of questions in the survey asks respondents to evaluate a series of social, religious and racial groups — including Asians — on a scale ranging from “very unfavorable” to “very favorable.” The change on the question involving Asian people has not been huge, but given the size of the survey’s weekly samples, it is statistically meaningful. In early January, less than 10 percent of respondents reported an unfavorable view of Asians. In the most recent survey, conducted March 19-26, 14 percent did. (The survey did not specify whether “Asians” referred to people in Asian countries or to Asian Americans; although given that this set of questions also asked about African Americans and Latinos, it is possible that participants thought primarily of Asian Americans.).

This shift in attitudes occurred among both Republicans and Democrats, but the most recent wave of surveys shows some evidence of partisan polarization: Republicans’ views of Asian people have continued to grow less favorable, while Democratic views have stabilized. Notably, the growing unpopularity of Asians found in this survey runs counter to the longer-term trend identified in others. In surveys conducted by the American National Election Study, Americans’ views of Asians had grown more positive from 1992 and 2016: On a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the most favorable, the average rating increased from 59 to 68 over that period.

There are two possible explanations for the trend identified in the survey. It may be that people are changing their opinions toward Asians, but it may also be that those with preexisting prejudice toward Asian people now feel more comfortable expressing it in a survey. Regardless, the trend appears unique to views of Asians. Views of other racial or ethnic minorities — including African Americans and Latinos — have not changed since the coronavirus emerged. (About 13 percent of Americans express unfavorable views of African Americans and Latinos, according to the Nationscape data.)

Unfavorable views of Asian people appear also to correlate with individuals’ concern about the coronavirus, at least among Republicans. Although various surveys, including Nationscape, show that Republicans are less concerned about the coronavirus than Democrats are, we also found that Republicans with a very unfavorable view of Asian people were more likely to worry about the coronavirus than Republicans with more favorable views.

China also appears to be the target of scapegoating. In YouGov/Economist surveys, the percentage of respondents who say that China is an “enemy” has increased from late January to late March. But here the increase is limited to Republicans, who appear to be reflecting the hostile rhetoric of some of their party’s leaders; Trump’s campaign, for example, recently declared that “America is under attack — not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese.” Data from the Nationscape study also show an increase in support for tariffs on Chinese goods since January, even though the trade war with China actually abated in that period; more evidence that this is about Covid-19.

While troubling, some caution is necessary in interpreting these findings. Although there is evidence of increasing disfavor toward Asian people, and toward China, the increase does not (yet) suggest a large shift in public opinion.

At the same time, when Asian Americans are already reporting incidents of abuse and the FBI is warning of a potential surge in hate crimes against Asian communities, we should take these trends seriously. Even a small increase in the number of Americans with an unfavorable view of Asian people could place at-risk communities in danger.

In response to the coronavirus, many leaders have called on Americans to take public-spirited actions; most importantly, limiting their contact with others and thereby reducing the spread of the virus. Large majorities of Americans have responded to these calls; by the end of March, 82 percent said they were avoiding visits with family and friends, according to Nationscape.

Hostility toward Asian people can be reduced in the same way. If leaders refuse to engage in rhetoric that inflames racial tensions — and if others call out the leaders who use that rhetoric — then the trends we have documented here may reverse themselves. But if that does not happen, then the demonization of Asians may spread along with the coronavirus.

Rlobert Griffin is a political scientist and research director of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He is co-author, with Lynn Vavreck and Michael Tesler, of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” Michael Tesler is an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine.

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