Pandemic-era stigma cost Asian restaurants $7.4 billion in lost revenue, new research finds

Stigma against Chinese cuisine in the first year of the pandemic cost Asian restaurants in the United States an estimated $7.4 billion in lost revenue in 2020, according to a recent study.

In a year in which tens of thousands of restaurants closed and many barely came by, the study – published online last week in the journal Nature Human Behavior – reported that Asian restaurants nationwide lost 18.4% more business than other restaurants by 2020. .

Prominent messages of anti-Asian racism, from harassment to direct violence, have swept the country in the years since the outbreak of the pandemic. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition formed in response, recorded nearly 11,500 such incidents from March 2020 to March 2022.

But the purpose of this study, in addition to determining “The cost of anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said researchers from Boston College, the University of Michigan and Microsoft Research, was designed to highlight instances of anti-Asian discrimination that continue to grow despite significant economic impact were less overt.

“If you have something like people just choosing not to eat at a Chinese restaurant, that’s something that’s much more subtle and under the surface, but it’s also much more common,” said study co-author Masha Krupenkin, a assistant professor of political science at Boston College.

Pedestrians walk past Peach Farm in Boston’s Chinatown on Jan. 15, 2021. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images file)

Justin Lipsky, the director of public policy for the Chinese Community Center in Minnesota, said he saw these stats play out in his area. In the months since the pandemic began in March 2020, Chinese-American restaurants in the Twin Cities area have faced hateful comments on social media about smashed windows and other acts of vandalism.

He said the $7.4 billion figure isn’t surprising, especially when factoring in compound factors such as entrenched and racist stereotypes that Chinese food is cheap or unclean. Those perceptions made it even harder for these restaurants to recover as inflation skyrocketed, forcing them to raise their menu prices.

“For example, if you go to an Italian restaurant and they raise the prices, people are more likely to pay the higher price. But if you go to a smaller Chinese establishment, people might understand that less because it’s exactly what the association with Chinese food is in many people’s minds,” Lipsky said. “So there’s an amalgamation of all these issues that have put AAPI restaurants, and specifically Chinese restaurants, in trouble.”

The research team analyzed search terms to determine the prevalence of negative attitudes toward China and people of Chinese descent, then examined consumer mobile device location data to determine the actual impact on restaurants. Additional survey data has further shed light on anecdotal attitudes toward Chinese food.

What surprised Krupenkin most of all, however, was that non-Chinese Asian restaurants experienced an even greater drop in traffic than Chinese restaurants. After investigating this overflow of consumer discrimination, her team found that many people simply couldn’t tell the different Asian cuisines apart.

“We actually did a kind of similar study where we had people label the ethnicity of restaurants based on their name,” she said, “and you would have people who would, say, mislabel ‘Tokyo Garden’ as Chinese.”

These patterns were consistent with multiple studies the researchers conducted to gauge consumer guilt. When asked which racial or ethnic group they believe is “most responsible for bringing Covid-19” into the country, “Asians” and “Chinese” were the most common answers among those who did not choose “None.” racial or ethnic group is liable.”

Blaming ethnic Chinese is then linked to two trends found by the study: that survey respondents consistently overestimated the proportion of Asian Americans who are Chinese, and that the respondents who overestimated the most were also likely to believe that Chinese food is a greater risk of contracting Covid-19.

Compared to the four years before the pandemic, anti-China web searches also increased after the pandemic – including expressions unrelated to Covid-19, such as searches tying China to communism or old stereotypes about the Chinese people and Chinese culture.

Searches for “Chinese people eat bats” and “Chinese people eat dogs” experienced similar spikes after the United States issued its national emergency declaration in mid-March 2020. While the first query (“bats”) was likely motivated by political and media rhetoric at the time, the study noted, the second (“dogs”) had no ties to the Covid-19 discourse.

One of the main drivers of effects such as anti-Asian discrimination, Krupenkin noted, is the relationship between partisanship and human behavior. The report finds that the largest drop in traffic to Asian restaurants occurred in zip codes that voted more heavily in 2016 for Donald Trump, who as president blamed China at the onset of the pandemic and continued to label Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus.” ‘. ”

“People tend to follow very strongly the signals of their party leaders,” she said. “So Trump leading by example and calling Covid ‘the China virus’ and really blaming China, I think was one of the main drivers behind the effects that we saw, especially among Republicans.”

Political leaders throughout history have repeatedly fanned the fire of xenophobic scapegoats in public health crises — for example, blaming Jewish immigrants for tuberculosis or African immigrants for Ebola.

While this new report specifically aimed to quantify the economic impact of pandemic-era racism against Asian-American communities, Krupenkin said, future research could examine whether and how this kind of stigma could arise even without harmful messages from government officials. .

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