Is COVID-19 Increasing Racially Motivated Crimes?

Research shows that disease threat can increase racism and xenophobia.

Posted May 22, 2020

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Anti-outgroup sentiment increases under disease threat.
Source: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

There has been a string of racially motivated crimes in recent months. An eleven-year-old black girl, Skhylur Davis, was attacked by a 38-year-old White woman while getting her mail. DarQuan Jones, a 22-year-old black man, reported being attacked by multiple white men on May 16. False, racist claims continue to emerge about Ahmaud Arbery, 25, the black man who was murdered by two white men while jogging in February.

The violence is not limited to blacks. An Asian couple was spat on while walking through downtown Seattle on May 11, topping off a string of anti-Asian hate crimes across the globe. Even Asian doctors and nurses report experiencing racist language while on the job.

Could one of the side-effects of COVID-19 be an increase in racism?

In a very compelling study, Letendre and colleagues showed that disease threat (the increased prevalence of parasites and pathogens) was related to xenophobic and ethnocentric ideals, and those ideals translated into increased violence against out-group members. Importantly, one need not contract a disease to show the changes in ideals or behavior. 

Last year, a study by Harvard researcher Brian O’Shea and colleagues showed that individuals who live in U.S. states with higher disease rates exhibit greater unconscious and conscious racial prejudice and are more likely to endorse racist ideology. In addition, when the researchers experimentally manipulated disease threat, they found that individuals with a stronger germ aversion also reported greater racial prejudice.

Just as our physical immune system gets "fired up" when exposed to disease, humans and other animals have evolved a behavioral immune system that triggers anti-outgroup sentiments when disease threat is high. For example, Faulkner and colleagues showed that disease threat increases anti-immigration beliefs.

The most common example of the behavioral immune system is the increase in feelings of disgust when disease pressure is high (Weinstein et al., 2018). We might be less likely to eat novel foods and avoid people who look like they could be infectious.  

Thus, anti-outgroup sentiments extend to anyone who does not look or act like you. Park and colleagues showed disease threat increased prejudiced attitudes toward disabled and obese individuals. Duncan and Schaller showed disease threat increased prejudice toward the elderly, while Ackerman and colleagues showed increased prejudice toward persons with a physical deformity.  

Importantly, this highly consistent and generalizable effect can be shown using correlational data but also is supported by laboratory experiments where disease threat is manipulated in subtle ways.

While the behavioral immune system in no way excuses prejudiced ideology or behavior, the knowledge of this phenomenon might help people question and reject any ethnocentric or anti- outgroup feelings that they might be having.


O’Shea, B. A., Watson, D. G., Brown, G. D., & Fincher, C. L. (2020). Infectious disease prevalence, not race exposure, predicts both implicit and explicit racial prejudice across the United States. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(3), 345-355.

[Letendre, K., Fincher, C. L., & Thornhill, R. (2010). Does infectious disease cause global variation in the frequency of intrastate armed conflict and civil war?. Biological Reviews, 85(3), 669-683.

Faulkner J., Schaller M., Park J. H., Duncan L A. (2004). Evolved disease-avoidance mechanisms and contemporary xenophobic attitudes. Group Process Intergroup Relations, 7, 333–353

Park, J. H., Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2003). Evolved disease-avoidance processes and contemporary anti-social behavior: Prejudicial attitudes and avoidance of people with physical disabilities. Journal of Nonverbal behavior, 27(2), 65-87.

Park, J. H., Schaller, M., & Crandall, C. S. (2007). Pathogen-avoidance mechanisms and the stigmatization of obese people. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(6), 410-414.

Ackerman, J. M., Becker, D. V., Mortensen, C. R., Sasaki, T., Neuberg, S. L., & Kenrick, D. T. (2009). A pox on the mind: Disjunction of attention and memory in the processing of physical disfigurement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 478–485

Weinstein, S. B., Buck, J. C., & Young, H. S. (2018). A landscape of disgust. Science, 359(6381), 1213-1214.