A new study reveals that COVID-related stigma cost Asian American restaurants over $7.4 billion in lost revenue in 2020.
As anti-Chinese sentiment rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from Boston College, the University of Michigan and Microsoft Research studied the subtle patterns of consumer discrimination arising from anti-Asian bias and how it has led to the 18.4% decrease in traffic relative to comparable non-Asian restaurants.
In their study titled "The cost of anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic” and published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour on Thursday, the researchers found that Asian restaurants in the U.S. suffered an estimated $7.42 billion in lost revenue in 2020, with greater losses in areas that have higher levels of support for former President Donald Trump, who explicitly blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on China and regularly referred to it as the “China virus” or “kung flu.”
The findings, which were derived from a series of surveys, online search trends and consumer traffic data, are consistent with “the roles of collective blame, out-group homogeneity and ethnic misidentification.”
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The change in attitudes toward Asian food during the pandemic was propelled by a combination of blaming Asians for the spread of COVID-19 and experiencing fear of Chinese food, according to the report.
“The Covid-19 pandemic originated in China,” co-author Masha Krupenkin, a Boston College assistant professor of political science, said.
Many actors in U.S. politics and media, especially those that were ideologically conservative, emphasized the connection between covid and China as a way of placing blame for the pandemic. At the same time, there was a sharp increase in incidents of discrimination and violence against Asian-Americans.
According to Krupenkin, the researchers hope to further examine patterns of discrimination and negative media narratives relating to specific groups.
In an interview with NextShark, co-author Justin T. Huang, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan, explained that anti-China bias among consumers who would misidentify other Asian restaurants as Chinese have led to decreased visits to non-Chinese Asian restaurants as well.
Consumer discrimination affected both Chinese and non-Chinese Asian restaurants, and more Trump-supporting areas saw greater avoidance of Asian businesses, consistent with his rhetoric which stigmatized and othered Asian Americans.
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The study shows how COVID-related stigma and anti-China rhetoric harm the Asian American community as a whole. The study also highlights the importance of avoiding stigmatization and racism in politics and public health communications.
Huang further explained how the emerging literature ties in with Asian American history and how Asian Americans have been scapegoated for broader geopolitical and economic events.
Vincent Jen Chin, a Chinese American, was targeted and murdered for appearing Japanese in 1982 by auto workers who blamed Japan for recent layoffs. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, was targeted and murdered for appearing Arab Muslim to his attacker seeking revenge for the 9/11 attacks. More recently, Bawi Cung (who traces his descent from Myanmar) and his young sons were attacked in Midland, Texas, in the early days of the pandemic for appearing Chinese and therefore spreading COVID-19.
In each of these cases, Asian Americans are seen as the perpetual foreigner and faced collective blame. I do not think it’s a coincidence that these attacks were also cases of ethnic misidentification. Stereotypes, racism and hate are often born out of ignorance, and individuals that most harbor animosity toward Asian Americans are those least willing and able to distinguish and recognize us as individuals.
According to Huang, the research shows that harm to Asian Americans during the pandemic was not limited to violent incidents of hate.
Harm was also demonstrated through micro-level interactions, such as consumer discrimination in retail settings and online platforms.
Similar studies on subtle patterns of consumer discrimination include a 2022 Harvard study which found that customers on AirBnB avoided hosts with Asian-sounding names.
In an employment study from last year, researchers found that Asian Americans in jobs requiring face-to-face interaction were more likely to become unemployed than other ethnic groups. The negative shifts in views of Asians were again more pronounced in Trump-supporting areas, which supports Huang and his team’s study on the mechanism of stigmatization-driven consumer discrimination.
I believe it’s crucial that we bring more awareness to the range of harms that the pandemic and related stigmatization have created for the Asian American community. Anti-Asian hate manifests in a range of ways, from violent attacks and micro-level interactions such as consumer discrimination. This research urgently reinforces the responsibility of politicians and media to not stigmatize the pandemic and other global events to mitigate harms to American minority and POC communities.