The Anxiety of Being Asian-American: Hate Crimes and Negative Biases During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Authors: Hannah Tessler (Yale University), Meera Choi (Yale University), and Grace Kao (Yale University)

Cite as: Tessler, H., Choi, M. & Kao, G. (2020) The Anxiety of Being Asian American: Hate Crimes and Negative Biases During the COVID-19 Pandemic. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 45, 636–646.

DOI link: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-020-09541-5

Summary | This article reviews how the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the risks of Asian Americans to hate crimes and experiences of negative bias. We suggest that COVID-19 is linked to China, not only in terms of the origins of the disease, but also in the popular media and news coverage of it. Because Asian Americans have historically been viewed as perpetually foreign no matter how long they have lived in the United States, we posit that it has been relatively easy for people to treat Chinese or Asian Americans as the physical embodiment of foreignness and disease.

First, we assess current patterns of hate crimes and other physical attacks against Asian Americans, as well as vandalism and property damage against Asian American businesses. We use examples from news reports to show how some people associate COVID-19 with Asian bodies and businesses, and some individuals have violently attacked Asian Americans out of their fears about the coronavirus. We also examine the increase in reported incidents of negative bias and microaggressions against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on statistics from the Stop AAPI Hate organization, there were over 1,000 incidents of verbal harassment reported in just four weeks. Some common incidents included being coughed or spat on as well as being the subject of racial slurs. The use of hateful language that targets all Asian Americans (and not just those of Chinese origin) reveals the racialization of Asian Americans as “foreign” and “other.” 

We situate these hate crimes and other negative bias incidents in sociological theory on the racialization of Asian Americans in the United States. At the same time, we explore the historical antecedents that link Asian Americans to infectious diseases, such as the bubonic plague and SARS epidemic. More generally, we draw attention to the association between racialized perceptions of threat and incidents of violence, using examples such as the murder of Vincent Chin and retaliatory attacks after 9/11 to highlight this elevated risk. Based on the trend of hate crimes and bias incidents against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic, we find that some Asians are fearful for their safety, and that these incidents reflect the widespread racial sentiments that are still prominent in American society. Finally, we consider the possibility that these experiences will lead to a reinvigoration of a panethnic Asian American identity and social movement

Contribution | This publication offers insight into the historical context behind the trend of hate crimes and negative incidents of bias against Asian Americans and Asians in America during the COVID-19 pandemic. The article also makes a theoretical connection between these recent events and the racialization of Asian bodies in the United States. Our research suggests that some individuals perceive all Asian bodies, without regard to ethnicity or national origin, as foreign, dangerous, and diseased. This is consistent with other research that describes the relationality of race and positionality of Asian Americans in the racial landscape of the United States. The implications of our research are significant beyond COVID-19. We believe that the negative racial bias incidents and hate crimes that are occurring are simply a manifestation of underlying racial sentiments about Asians that will remain salient even after the current COVID-19 crisis is over.

With regards to international student mobility and higher education in the United States, this publication becomes particularly relevant in terms of examining how nonwhite bodies become coded as foreign and regarded with suspicion as potential spreaders of disease, or blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe that COVID-19 may change how international students relate to race on American college campuses, as these students experience how they are racialized in the United States in ways that they may not be familiar with based on their experiences in their home countries. We hypothesize that these effects may persist in the upcoming few academic years, and  the trends of international students studying in the United States may shift as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Finally, we argue that part of this shift may be connected with how international students are treated once they arrive in the United States.