Discrimination at the table

Publish date 27-04-2023

by Pierluigi Conzo

US Asian restaurants targeted by covid-related anti-China sentiment and Trump rhetoric

Many like me will remember those politicians who blamed China and Chinese communities for creating and spreading the Covid-19 pandemic. I am referring to when Donald Trump and some members of the Republican Party - but there were no more morally virtuous exceptions in Italy too - launched media messages trying to blame China with discriminatory expressions, such as "Chinese virus" and "Kung Flu", to describe the coronavirus. What impact has this rhetoric, and the pandemic as a whole, had on discrimination against the Chinese community and, more generally, Asian communities?

A recent article published in Nature Human Behavior, using a series of surveys, online research trends and consumer mobility data, shows that Asian restaurants have experienced an 18.4% drop in customers due to the pandemic compared to comparable non-Asian restaurants, with larger decreases in areas with higher levels of support for Donald Trump.

The authors argue that the Covid-19 pandemic is to all intents and purposes an "exogenous shock" - an unpredictable event external to the economic system which, however, influences economic behavior - which has given voice to the increasingly explicit racial appeals of politicians, identifying marginalized groups as responsible and thus contributing to the rise of anti-Asian attitudes in the United States. The authors propose four main findings in support of this hypothesis.

First, by looking at web searches by US citizens, the authors show that anti-China sentiment rose sharply during the early stages of the pandemic, as evidenced by the increase in searches for “China and Communism,” “China and debt”, research related to the use of certain animal species in the kitchen, and other anti-China research in general.

An analysis of data on the location of consumers' mobile devices shows that most consumers have avoided Asian restaurants. During the period following the start of the pandemic, Asian restaurant traffic decreased by a substantial 18.4% compared to non-Asian restaurant traffic during the same period. Attendance at Chinese restaurants decreased by 10.9%, while attendance at non-Chinese Asian restaurants decreased by 25%. The total cost of discrimination to Asian restaurants during the pandemic was $7.42 billion in lost revenue in 2020, according to the authors.

Furthermore, given that former President Trump has been a major source of anti-China rhetoric (blaming the pandemic on China), the authors analyze whether increased support for Trump is actually associated with declining footfall at Chinese restaurants and, more generally, Asians observed in the post pandemic. The findings are in line with this hypothesis: Greater Trump support appears to be associated with greater avoidance of Asian restaurants.

Finally, the results of some surveys conducted by the authors during the pandemic show that consumers tend to blame Asians for the spread of the virus and express fear of Chinese food. Again, these results are driven by Trump voters versus Biden voters. Furthermore, most respondents overestimate the fraction of Asian Americans of Chinese ethnicity, thus overestimating the homogeneity of the out-group: simplifying as much as possible, according to them all Asians are equal. This group also seems more likely to believe that Chinese food increases the risk of contracting Covid-19.

Taken together, these findings indicate that anti-China sentiment, whether driven by fear or anger, triggered by Covid-19 and reinforced by US political rhetoric, played a substantial role in consumer discrimination against of Asian restaurants. And, as highlighted by the authors' estimates, this discrimination has had a significant economic cost not only for Chinese restaurants, but, in general, for all Asian-owned ones, thus underlining that the discrimination of a group is blind: it does of all the grass a bundle.

 The cost of discrimination for Asian restaurants during the pandemic totaled $7.42 billion in lost revenue in 2020, according to the authors of a recent paper published in Nature Human Behavior.

Pierluigi Conzo

NP Febbraio 2023

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