Demystifying Race-Based Myths Behind Pandemic Scapegoating

Americans need to immediately stop taking out their pandemic frustrations on Asian-American communities.

Taylor B. Alarcón
Feb 25 · 6 min read

As a biracial Asian-American writer, this is my attempt to grapple with the continuous wave of anti-Asian discrimination across the nation following the COVID-19 outbreak, including the disgusting, insidious violence that has occurred against Asian-Americans in recent weeks.

Demystifying race-based myths behind pandemic scapegoating uses data from the World Health Organization, the National Bureau of Economic Research and more to analyze the methods of anti-Asian scapegoating, to demystify the assumptions imposed on the Asian-American community during the pandemic that have resulted in their marginalization, and to outline how & why the assumptions must be challenged.

It argues that there is simply no reasonable basis for why Asian-Americans are to blame for the pandemic, while exploring the reasons why people continue to blame us anyway.

The Problem:

  • An April poll of Americans found that one-third had seen someone blaming Asian people for the pandemic; UC Berkeley finds that over 50% of California voters blame China for the virus
  • There has been a a rise in economic boycott of Asian businesses: 22% decline in all small business-owner activity nationwide from February to April, Asian American business-owner activity dropped by 26%, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research
  • Micro-aggressions such as verbal harassment, name calling and coughing have become more rampant — with Asian-American women being 3x as likely to be attacked than men
  • Violence: anti-Asian crimes have risen by 1900%, including assault, kidnapping and robbery
Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old immigrant from Thailand, was killed in San Francisco on January 28, 2021. Artwork by Jonathan D. Chang.

Driving questions:

What assumptions have led to anti-Asian sentiment, a sentiment that has evolved into violence?

How do we challenge/address those assumptions (with data)?

The framework for discovering answers:

  1. What are the myths/assumptions?
  2. What are the actual truths?
  3. *Why are people actually swayed by the myths/assumptions?

*Within the context of each myth-bust, I visit recent data from Ohio State University that points to the real reasons people scapegoat Asian-Americans, including pre-existing racial prejudice (i.e. preconceived notions and stereotypical beliefs people already held about Asians, exacerbated by Trump and other leaders labeling it the “China virus”), maladaptive coping (i.e. low levels of self-efficacy in dealing with the pandemic, when associated with high perceived harm of contracting COVID-19, results in increased stigmatization), and partisan media/misinformation (most frequent and that which we attempt to address in this article).

While some of the myths below may come off as preposterous, the reality is that some people actually believe them, wielding them as reason for their discriminatory actions. Until we create dialogue around the misinformation floating around, the discrimination will never cease.

Myth #1: Asian-American communities (ex. Chinatown San Francisco) have higher rates of COVID-19 infections and therefore should be avoided

Truth: America’s oldest Chinatown in San Francisco has had relatively fewer cases of COVID-19 infection than the rest of the city, proportionally. As of December 2020 there have only been 102 reported cases in Chinatown, whereas [other] neighborhoods like the Marina and Fort Mason had more than triple that at 376 cases. Further data reveals that Chinatown San Francisco got ahead of the virus before other parts of the city.

*In this situation, we are seeing a case of partisan media/misinformation.

Myth #2: Asian-Americans spread coronavirus at higher rates and are a higher risk group

Truth: Coronavirus has shown not to discriminate — if you are exposed, you are most likely infected. But the particular myth that Asians are at a higher risk has also been debunked as we’ve seen that Black and brown people have been disproportionally most affected by the virus due to socioeconomic circumstances that lead to higher possibility of exposure.

Now, of course this doesn’t mean that anyone should go around avoiding Black and brown people; it simply means these communities are at a higher risk due to extenuating circumstances — circumstances that must be addressed and considered in tackling the pandemic most effectively. Everyone, no matter your risk level, should socially distance and wear a mask.

*In this situation, we are seeing a case of partisan media/misinformation.

Myth #3: COVID-19 started in a lab in Wuhan, presumably as part of a biowarfare operation carried out by the Chinese government

Truth: Simply not true (from the scientific journal Nature Medicine) — “Researchers concluded that the novel coronavirus is not a human creation because it does not share any ‘previously used virus backbone.’ It likely arose, the study said, from a recombination of a virus found in bats and another virus, possibly originating from pangolins, otherwise known as scaly anteaters. COVID-19 is 96% identical to a coronavirus found in bats, researchers said, but with a certain variation that could explain what has made it so infectious.” This too is in line with a recent conclusion from the World Health Organization, with experts confirming that it is extremely unlikely that the virus was some sort of lab creation.

*In this situation, we are seeing a case of partisan media/misinformation.

Myth #4: Coronavirus emergence only could’ve occurred in China, for whatever reason [due to bat consumption or supposed unsanitary dietary habits]

Truth: “Over the past 15 years, scientists have also identified global animal reservoirs of coronaviruses (in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia and Southeast Asia, and particularly China, the location of three of the four most recent emergencies). These efforts have revealed much about coronaviral ecosystems, reservoir hosts, viral movement between hosts, viral evolution, and risk of emergence into humans and other mammals. ‘We now know that the viruses causing SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are all members of enormous groups of bat coronaviruses distributed globally, and that many of these viruses are functionally pre-adapted to human emergence.’”

Translation: It could have happened anywhere and is in no way due to any cultural or sanitary practices in China.

*In this situation, we are seeing a case of partisan media/misinformation.

Myth #5: Blaming China will somehow help us get over the pandemic faster

Truth: This seems obvious. This fantastic write up from the Brookings Institute speaks on the current “blame game” between world governments, how politically inefficient it has been and how it shutters any progress towards tackling the crisis.

It also speaks on the fact that the origins of the virus truly remain unknown, with the WHO conducting a global investigation — not just an investigation into China.

*In this situation, we are seeing a case of maladaptive coping.

Myth #6: Asian-Americans people are somehow a stand-in for any frustrations you may have with the Chinese government

Truth: This also seems obvious, but clearly needs to be said. These are bigoted, ignorant views — although I will admit they are in line with the course of American history, an example being the skyrocketing Islamophobia that occurred post-9/11.

None of these discriminatory acts get at the root of the problem nor do they result in social, political or economic progress. They are simply a manifestation of one’s ignorance, lack of empathy and inability to cope with crisis.

*In this situation, we are seeing yet another consequence of maladaptive coping and misinformation.

(Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

It is apparent that the Asian-American community is indeed facing two crises: a health crisis due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the rampant discrimination we are facing daily. We are being scapegoated as a result of false claims, misinformation, poor leadership and sheer ignorance.

Whether it is preexisting racial prejudice, partisan media or maladaptive coping, Americans must learn to grapple with the real reasons behind their frustration, spare the Asian-American community from any more harm and intentionally institute anti-racist frameworks to fight further physical and emotional violence.

Taylor Alarcon is a writer & photojournalist focused on arts & culture, race & ethnicity, inequality and artistic activism. He is a current contributing writer at Creative Boom Magazine and a volunteer research associate the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab at Princeton University.

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