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Workplace Prejudice Against East Asians During COVID-19

Pandemic reminders increase prejudice in the workplace, a new study found.

Key points

  • Violent hate crimes against Asian Americans have soared since the beginning of the pandemic. However, prejudice can occur in different forms.
  • Researchers examined whether pandemic reminders impacted workplace prejudice against five different racial groups.
  • Pandemic reminders increased prejudice toward East Asian and Hispanic Americans, but not White, Black, or South Asian Americans.
  • Contextual factors such as COVID-related job loss and county-level COVID rates impacted the prejudicial effects towards East Asians.

Violent hate crimes against Asian Americans have soared since the beginning of the pandemic. For instance, in San Francisco, which has a one-third Asian population, hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) rose by 567 percent from 2020 to 2021.

However, Asian Americans have also faced prejudice and discrimination in another area: the workplace. A recent study indicated that during the pandemic, Asian Americans were more likely to lose their jobs and less likely to be re-employed than non-Hispanic Whites, non-Hispanic Blacks, and Hispanics. Even before the pandemic, Asian Americans faced barriers in the workplace, such as the “bamboo ceiling,” which interferes with their ascent to leadership positions just as the “glass ceiling” does for women.

Many of these issues are ignored due to widespread stereotypes of Asian Americans as “model minorities,” a term that was coined in 1982 when a large number of Asian professionals immigrated to the U.S. after a long period of exclusion. In addition, Asian Americans may under-report discrimination in the workplace due to fears of repercussions such as losing their job or losing out on a promotion. Therefore, to shed light on workplace discrimination during the pandemic, Kaushal et al. (2022) conducted an experimental study investigating whether reminding Americans of the pandemic would lead to greater workplace prejudice against certain racial groups.

The researchers anticipated that COVID-19 salience would increase workplace prejudice against all ethnic minorities, given perceptions of them as outgroup members. They expected that ethnic minorities perceived as foreign (e.g., East Asians, South Asians, and Hispanics) would face increased prejudice as they may be seen as “undeserving” of resources (such as jobs). Finally, they hypothesized that East Asians would face the strongest prejudice due to rhetoric surrounding the “Chinese virus.”

The researchers conducted their study using a nationally representative sample of 5,000 Americans in August 2020. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to receive a COVID-19 reminder. These individuals read about the state of COVID in August 2020, reflected on “how COVID-19 impacted employment, earnings, and health of the respondents and their families” (p. 2), and then read a vignette about a hypothetical (male) employee, whose name was randomly varied to reflect one of five racial groups: Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, East Asians, or South Asians.

After reading the vignette, the participants indicated how much they desired this hypothetical person as a colleague, supervisor, and staff member. The control group did not receive the COVID-19 information, and instead completed the reflection about the effects of COVID-19 at the very end of the study after the vignettes.

Pixabay / Pexels
COVID-19 reminders increased prejudice towards East Asians and Hispanics, but not Whites, Blacks, or South Asians
Source: Pixabay / Pexels

Findings showed that the COVID-19 reminders resulted in greater prejudice towards East Asian and Hispanic individuals, but not Whites, Blacks, or South Asians. East Asians were rated as less desirable as colleagues and supervisors, whereas Hispanics were rated as less desirable as colleagues, supervisors, and staff members.

Patterns differed for the two groups. For East Asians, extremely negative evaluations increased. For Hispanics, extremely positive evaluations decreased.

There were no gender differences in terms of showing prejudice. In addition, contextual factors increased prejudicial effects towards East Asians. Participants who lost jobs from the pandemic, lived in areas with high rates of COVID-19 infection, or lived in areas with fewer Asians showed greater prejudicial effects. These factors did not impact prejudice toward Hispanics.

The results underscore the effects of the pandemic on the well-being of particular racial minorities, particularly Hispanics and East Asians. As the researchers hypothesized, pandemic-driven prejudice was particularly robust for East Asians.

Importantly, the study differentiated between South Asians and East Asians, who are typically studied by researchers under one broad category of “Asian Americans.” The findings highlight not only the diversity among Asian Americans, but also the differences in outsiders’ perceptions of different Asian American subgroups, and thus, the unique forms of prejudice and discrimination faced by each group.

The researchers found that participants had trouble identifying South Asian names, and further speculate that they did not find pandemic-driven prejudice towards South Asians because almost half of Americans do not see South Asians (e.g., Indians, Pakistanis) as Asians according to the 2016 National Asian American Survey.

The researchers also point out that their study measures prejudice (a feeling), which is different from discrimination (a behavior). However, their experimental manipulation likely underestimates the effects of the pandemic on prejudice given that most people (including the control group) already had the pandemic on their minds.

Overall, the study is strong in many ways, including its large and nationally representative sample, its experimental nature, its differentiation of Asian American subgroups, and its investigation of an understudied domain of prejudice against Asian Americans. Future research might look at prejudice in different fields of work; the intersecting effects of gender, age, and other identities; and the evolving stereotypes of Asian American subgroups as the pandemic continues.

References

Kaushal, N., Lu, Y., & Huang, X. (2022). Pandemic and prejudice: Results from a national survey experiment. PLoS ONE, 17(4), e0265437. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0265437

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