Sociological theory and historical precedent suggest that pandemics engender scapegoating of outgroups, but fail to specify how the ethnoracial boundaries defining outgroups are drawn. Using a survey experiment that primed half of the respondents (California registered voters) with questions about COVID-19 during April 2020, we ask how the pandemic influenced attitudes toward immigration, diversity and affect toward Asian Americans. In the aggregate, the COVID prime did not affect attitudes toward immigrants, but did reduce support for policies opening a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and reduced appreciation of California’s diversity. Respondents reported rarely feeling anger or fear toward Asian Americans, and rates were unaffected by the COVID prime. A non-experimental comparison between attitudes toward immigrants in September 2019 and April 2020 found a positive change, driven by change among Asian-American and Latino respondents. The results provide selective support for the proposition that pandemics engender xenophobia. At least in April 2020 in California, increased bias crimes against Asian Americans more likely reflected politicians’ authorization of scapegoating than broad-based racial antagonism.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Sociology and Political Science
- COVID-19 pandemic
- ethnoracial boundaries