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Why The Recent Violence Against Asian Americans May Solidify Their Support Of Democrats

Even before the coronavirus became a worldwide pandemic, some astute observers of racial and ethnic politics feared that the emerging outbreak in China would lead to (and were already contributing to) a rise in anti-Asian sentiment in America. After all, the United States has a long and ugly history of scapegoating racial and ethnic groups for diseases in ways that are used to justify xenophobia.

Sadly, it didn’t take long for those fears to be realized. Racist harassment online, verbal attacks in public and physical assaults against Asian Americans all surged in the early days of the pandemic and have remained alarmingly high ever since. In fact, anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. increased by nearly 150 percent from 2019 to 2020.

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But it took the murder of six Atlanta women of Asian descent in March for many to finally realize the seriousness of the problem. According to Google Trends data, Google searches like “Asian Americans” and “violence against Asian Americans” skyrocketed after the shooting. Similarly, the share of respondents in last week’s YouGov/Economist poll who said there is “a great deal” of discrimination against Asian people (33 percent) doubled since YouGov asked this question in March 2020 after reports of COVID-19-related backlash against Asian Americans had initially surfaced.

An Asian woman walking down the street with a mask on. She’s looking down at the ground, and behind her is a building with a Chinese sign on it.

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Of course, as the targets of this hatred, Asian Americans have been much more aware of the growing problem. In a June 2020 Pew Research Center poll, 58 percent of Asian Americans said it was more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak, compared to just 39 percent of all adults. And about half of those surveyed in AAPI Data’s 2020 Asian American Voter Survey also said they worried “very often” or “somewhat often” about experiencing hate crimes, harassment and discrimination because of COVID-19.    

The effect of this hatred has partisan ramifications, too. Asian Americans’ escalating fears of discrimination and harassment during the pandemic will likely solidify their already strong support of Democrats

That’s true for a couple of reasons. First, perceptions of discrimination and feelings of social exclusion are strongly linked with how Asian Americans vote. Take, for example, the relationship between Asian Americans who said they perceived discrimination and how they said they would vote in the 2020 presidential election. 

Over three-quarters of Asian American and Pacific Islanders voters who thought there was “a great deal” or “a lot” of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. supported Joe Biden over Donald Trump in weekly Democracy Fund UCLA Nationscape surveys conducted from April to September 2020. But only 37 percent of Asian Americans who didn’t think there was any anti-Asian discrimination preferred Biden to Trump in the presidential election.

Political scientists Alexander Kuo, Neil Malhotra and Cecilia Mo have argued that Asian Americans who experience discrimination are more likely to support Democrats because they associate social exclusion based on their ethnic background with the predominantly white Republican Party. Take, for example, what Kuo, Malhotra and Mo found in one experiment. Some participants were randomly subjected to a microaggression from a white lab assistant who questioned their citizenship before having them answer a survey that measured political attitudes. The Asian Americans subjected to the microaggression were 13 percentage points more likely than the control group to view the Democratic Party in a positive light.

This uptick came at the expense, too, of how respondents thought about the Republican Party. That is, the Asian Americans who were subjected to the microaggression were more likely to say that Republicans were close-minded and associate the party with exclusionary treatment. That is something that has been made much more explicit during the pandemic.

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Democratic politicians, for instance, have consistently shown far greater concern than their Republican counterparts over the rise in hate directed against Asian Americans during the pandemic— differences that were clearly on display in the 2020 presidential campaign. Then-candidate Joe Biden forcefully condemned President Trump’s repeated use of terms like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” to describe the coronavirus, warning that such language could endanger Asian Americans.

There’s evidence to support those concerns, too. Two recent studies found that online animosity and offline hate incidents against Asian Americans heightened after Trump linked China and COVID-19 in his tweets; another study found that Trump’s framing of the pandemic as China’s fault increased anti-Asian sentiments and xenophobia in survey experiments; and there’s evidence, too, that rank-and-file Republicans have become much more hostile toward China during the pandemic — views that experts warn pose a threat to all Asian Americans.   

In total, the prejudice Asian Americans have experienced during the pandemic does seem to have further solidified their already strong support of the Democratic Party. Analyzing data from weekly Nationscape surveys conducted between July 2019 and May 2020, political scientists Nathan Chan,1 Jae Yeon Kim and Vivien Leung show that Asian Americans moved more toward the Democratic Party than other racial and ethnic groups after Trump first made ethnically inflammatory remarks about the coronavirus. Chan and his colleagues concluded from their findings that exclusionary rhetoric from partisan elites “further cement[s] Asian Americans as Democrats.”

This certainly doesn’t mean that social exclusion and experiences with discrimination are the only reasons why Asian Americans have overwhelmingly supported Democrats. Nor is it possible to precisely predict how the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic will affect Asian American partisanship in the long run. But, at the very least, Republican rhetoric about the pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian hate over the past year seems to have solidified the longstanding link between Asian Americans’ feelings of social exclusion and their support for the Democratic Party.

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  1. Disclaimer: I am one of Chan’s dissertation advisors at the University of California, Irvine.

Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”