The novel coronavirus has proven itself extremely infectious on multiple fronts—both in terms of an epidemiological pandemic, but also as a harbinger of anti-Asian racism. All indications suggest that Asian-specific COVID-19 racism in the U.S. is on the rise. Within 24 hours of opening a website for Asians in the U.S. to report pandemic-related racism, there were reports of 40 separate incidents. Anecdotally, Asian American reporters are experiencing racial slurs that they haven’t heard since grade school, and an Asian American member of Congress is fearful for his own safety.
One of the authors of this piece (Eun) has experienced firsthand multiple instances of passers-by covering their noses and mouths while in stores and parking lots, and has had family members nearly physically assaulted because they were Asian. The other author (Kraus) had a recent conversation with his daughter (7) about why she was not proud of their Chinese heritage, a reaction connected to public and political efforts to blame the virus on China.
These recent events are deeply troubling, but they reveal an unsettling truth about racial equality that is important to keep in mind as we forge ahead in our efforts to curtail the spread of this virus: Racial equality, even for seemingly high-status model minority groups, is not something that unfolds automatically with the passage of time. This moment teaches us that economic status gains afforded to some Asian families do not protect them from the bigotry that has risen to the surface with the surge of cases of COVID-19. The above-mentioned instances also reveal the frail façade of—and the danger of embracing—stereotypes: People, as a collective, are neither model minorities nor wholly unassimilable.
Asian people living in the U.S. are often held up as the paragon of integration into American culture. Stereotypes abound—from mathematical whizzes and Tiger Moms to polite, law-abiding doctors, lawyers, and engineers—and they paint an exceedingly favorable picture of immigrant striving and thriving. But this model minority mythology simplifies and distorts the experiences of Asian people in this country.
In research, one of the authors of this piece (Kraus) has examined the tendency for Americans to perceive greater racial equality than actually exists when examining data from the federal government. Along with researchers Entung (Enya) Kuo and Jennifer Richeson, we found that Americans tend to overestimate Asian-White wealth equality in society. That is, respondents in our surveys believed that Asian-American families had about equal the wealth of White families when, in fact, White families had slightly more.
In follow-up analyses, our group found that Americans tend to focus on high-status Asian subgroups when making these wealth estimates—that is, thinking of the Asian-American students at colleges and universities or those traveling to the States on H1-B visas, rather than Asian-Americans traveling to the U.S. to escape war and poverty. These data are an illustration of how model minority mythology shapes American perceptions of Asian people in the U.S. Conceived of as model citizens, who also happen to be racial minorities, the valuable traits of Asian people are overemphasized (like strong math skills, and family values that prioritize education) in ways that distort the public’s conceptions of the group as a whole.
This high-status, model minority, conception of Asian-Americans is accompanied by a second common distortion—one of foreignness. Asian people in the U.S. tend to be seen as divergent and separate from American culture, with exotic food habits, language, and cultural practices that lead Asians to be labeled as foreign or “other,” even within Asian communities that have been in the U.S. for many generations. This foreignness component, when paired with a foreign viral contaminant spreading to people across the U.S. and the world, heightens bigotry and racism toward Asian communities.
The heightened racism experienced by Asian communities is surprising to many people because beliefs in racial progress are widespread in American society. In prior research, U.S. respondents from across the country tended to widely overestimate the extent that society has progressed toward wealth equality between racial groups. Such beliefs in racial progress both make it difficult to anticipate sudden rises in violent racism toward Asian communities and stand as a barrier to equitable health policy.
Importantly, as we turn toward local and national responses to this pandemic, intention and effort must be marshalled to create policies that center equity and justice. This means caring for the most vulnerable in our communities during this crisis, like the Asian-Americans who will be unfairly blamed for the spread of this disease, but also the poor, homeless, elderly, immunosuppressed, and the incarcerated, who do not have the optimal conditions for combating the spread of this virus. We must stand in solidarity—both during these difficult times, and afterwards—to continue fighting against bigotry and marching towards justice and equality for all.