The Discriminatory Impact of COVID-19 Posted on Friday, July 17, 2020

Asian Americans and COVID-19: What We Still Need to Know about Race and Racial Exclusion in America

Vivian Louie Professor of Urban Policy and Planning and Director of the Asian American Studies Center and Program at Hunter College

The story of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 among Asian New Yorkers highlights how much we still do not know about this population and why we need a comparative lens to accurately assess the impact of the pandemic and where to go next. What is shared and distinct among the different groups in this diverse and often overlooked population? To what extent are their experiences similar to and different from Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, and why and how is this the case? Answers to these questions require more robust data and rigorous analyses and will help us develop a stronger empirical basis to “see” New York’s Asian population and to identify levers for policy change and stronger coalition building. These coalitions need to be built both within the Asian American population, and across race and ethnicity, with Blacks, Latinos, Whites and Native Americans, to create a more equitable city and nation.

What We Know 

We know three things already—there was an early fiscal impact for small businesses and low wage workers in the city’s Chinatown and satellite Chinatowns, a rise in hate crimes against East Asians who looked to be of Chinese descent, and a relatively low number of deaths among Asian New Yorkers. The fiscal impact dates to late January, when customers stayed away from Chinese or East Asian restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and Queens’ Flushing, mistakenly associating COVID-19 with East Asians. Media and community accounts documented that many Chinese restaurants in these three areas were temporarily shut down well before the governor’s March 16 Pause Policy. State unemployment data buttress these claims: Asians, who account for “about 9 percent of New York state’s population and workforce,” filed 12.5 percent of unemployment claims in April. A year prior, this figure was only 3.7 percent.[2]

New Yorkers who looked like they might be of Chinese descent were increasingly blamed for COVID-19 and became the target of bias and hate crimes. According to the New York City Human Rights Commission, 133 anti-Asian reports were filed from February 1, 2020 to May 15, 2020, as compared to only 11 reports during the same period the previous year. In response, in late April, the New York City Commission on Human Rights launched a COVID-19 Response Team. The local data are consistent with national data and FBI warnings that the nation would see an escalation in hate crimes based on the mistaken assumption that the virus is associated with China (where the outbreak originated) and Asian Americans. Our nation’s president and members of his administration have only fueled the situation by referencing COVID-19 as the China virus, the Chinese virus, or even Kung Flu. Asians across the nation and the globe have been called racial and ethnic slurs, harassed verbally — you are the face of the disease, you brought the virus here, go back to China — spat at, had things thrown at them, and some were assaulted.

Finally, in a potential irony, this social isolation might have inadvertently protected some Asian New Yorkers from the disease itself — they are 7.9 percent of the city’s total COVID-19 deaths, about half of their overall population share. Media and community accounts have provided further hunches. Three out of four Asian New Yorkers are immigrants, and they likely heard about COVID-19 and much earlier outbreaks like SARS, from family in Asia and the ethnic media. In response, some might have undertaken protective measures, like wearing masks, well before other New Yorkers.

Diverse Demographics, Shared Exclusion & Legal Pushback 

To understand these three facts, we should turn to history and politics. The growing and diverse Asian American population in the United States, about 5.6 percent, is due largely to the Immigration Act of 1965. This landmark legislation lifted racial and ethnocentric barriers to immigration and was inspired from the same spirit of equality driving the Civil Rights Movement.[1] In New York City, Asian Americans comprise about 15 percent of the population and belong to an aggregated category encompassing at least 20 groups. The five largest groups here are the Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Filipinos, and Bangladeshis.

The low wage service sector story reflects the population’s remarkable socioeconomic diversity. Contrary to the popular misconception that all Asians in the United States are well-to-do, they are in fact the nation’s most economically bifurcated racial or ethnic group. That bifurcation holds true in New York City, where a quarter of the city’s Asian American population are poor, and Asian Americans comprise 16 percent of frontline service workers in grocery, convenience and drug stores. According to the poverty tracker used by the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, Asian New Yorkers had the highest poverty rate for nine of 12 years from 2005-2017.[2] About a quarter of low income and poor Asian New Yorkers do not have health insurance. Furthermore, low income and poor Asian New Yorkers tend to live in multigenerational households located in densely populated neighborhoods. If we look at other demographic statuses often correlated with economic vulnerability, we see that about a quarter of Asian American senior citizens in the city are living in poverty; and a quarter of the undocumented population in New York State trace their origins to Asia.[3] These numbers are in the aggregate. But we also need to recognize the substantial variation between Asian American groups (e.g., Bangladeshi New Yorkers are more likely to be poor, as compared to the Chinese) and within a group (New York City’s Chinese American population has a great deal of socio-economic, national origins and linguistic diversity).

While the racism, anti-immigration sentiments, and xenophobia underlying COVID-19 have focused on East Asian Americans, this type of exclusion has characterized the experiences of all Asians in the United States. Across their many differences, Asian Americans have been seen as racial, cultural, and economic threats [4]– although these have played out differently according to group and context. Further, this othering is similar to the exclusion of fellow nonwhite groups and groups that are popularly seen as white but still are not fully accepted as real Americans.[5] The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in the midst of the pandemic, powerfully demonstrated anti-Blackness.

In the case of Asians, this exclusion has manifested in policies restricting their rights in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) was the first – but not the last — federal action taken to bar labor migrants from an entire national origins group from entering the United States. At various points, Asians were denied the right to join unions, obtain professional licenses, testify in court, own land, marry local women, or bring over wives from the homeland.[6] Until 1943, Asians in the United States were denied the right to become citizens through naturalization. Japanese “aliens” thus ineligible for citizenship and their U.S. born children, were sent to internment camps during World War II.[7] This foreshadowed the targeting of Arabs, Muslim Americans and South Asian Americans, who were mistaken for being Muslim, after 9/11 and in the wake of the 2017 Travel Ban. For each exclusionary policy, there was notable legal pushback from Asian Americans.

The blaming of East Asians in the United States for how China might have mishandled the original COVID-19 outbreak also has historical roots. Asians have consistently been framed as forever foreigners [8] – and blamed for the actions of their home or ancestral countries or even neighboring nations. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American engineer was beaten to death in the Detroit area by white auto workers, who said they mistook him for a Japanese American. Apparently, the real source of their anger were Japanese automobile companies that they felt were taking away their jobs. The role of American car companies in the decline of American labor at that time was not mentioned. Instead, the assailants targeted Vincent Chin. In return, they were sentenced to three years’ probation and subject to a $3000 fine.[9] The death of Vincent Chin launched new civil rights activism among Asian Americans.[10]

The public health story, understandably the most evolving of the three, runs into the issue of disaggregated data, not only for Asian Americans but all races and ethnicities. Health researchers have long noted that aggregated data, while better than no data, is still of limited use and might mask disparities; and further, the relative scarcity of disaggregated data on Asian Americans limits their meaningful inclusion in research and policy programs.[11]

Moving Forward

In her essay, Roseanne Flores writes about the price we all pay when state and federal agencies do not collect health data by race and ethnicity. High quality disaggregated data and policies that use that data to effect change are critical to telling a more nuanced narrative about the economic, health, mental health, and bias impacts of COVID-19. Only recently do we have racial data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after the New York Times sued the agency. The picture for Blacks and Latinos is as grim as some of us thought it would be.

In the case of Asian Americans, COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief all that we still do not know about this diverse population. The low-wage, service sector and small businesses amongst Asian Americans include numerous ethnic niches such as the taxi and vehicle for hire industry and newsstand operators, which are disproportionately South Asian; dry cleaners (Korean Americans), and nail salons (Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian Americans). How have they experienced COVID-19? There are likely to be differences within a single group and between group categories, e.g., East Asians compared to South Asians. This point is consistent with calls by Lázaro Lima, in his essay for this collection, for a more nuanced picture of Latinos, also a tremendously diverse group.

Disaggregated data of Asian Americans will also help unpack the physical and mental health impacts of the pandemic. Both are key to examine among front line health care workers – Asian Americans comprise 11.6 percent of these workers in New York State. What was it like working on the front lines while being seen as the face of the disease? Was this experience different for non-frontline workers? We also need to know whether wearing masks and involuntary social distancing did help buffer the contagion’s effects for East Asians in New York City, compared to other Asian groups. And as Roseanne Flores rightly pointed out, in her panel remarks, we also need to understand the impact of multiple traumas. This includes the traumatic events surrounding the police killing of George Floyd and the national and global outpouring of grief and protest and self-examination of our biases and positionality within a clearly unequal system.

Finally, there is need for comparative research of Asian Americans, Latinos, Blacks, and Native Americans.[12] As Anthony Browne points out in his essay for this collection, housing segregation and redlining have disproportionately forced Black Americans into communities that have been systematically under-resourced, lacking quality schools, food, medical care, jobs and business ventures. According to William Julius Wilson, “very few urban white neighborhoods, even those with the same poverty rates as black neighborhoods, approximate these conditions.” At the local level, this line of inquiry should extend to Asian New Yorkers. Being Asian and poor in an area with greater resources and racial and ethnic diversity might have different causal effects on life outcomes than being poor in an intensely poor and depopulated neighborhood, which is more likely to be the case for Black Americans. And the contagion might amplify those differences. Similarly, as Anahi Viladrich writes in her essay for this collection, Latino immigrants, especially the undocumented, might be exposed to a different set but no less dire conditions, as compared to Black Americans. These might leave them similarly exposed to the virus and to die in higher rates compared to white populations. Further research should test these hypotheses.

The essays in this collection reveal national and state leaders casting racialized blame for COVID-19 across different groups. The blaming plays out in different ways depending on the group. Blacks and Latinos are being blamed for their high rates of infections and deaths, as if they are somehow not doing something right or are “deficient.” Meanwhile, scant attention is paid to the structural conditions of racism that put them in harm’s way. East Asians are wrongly seen as carriers of the virus, on the basis of descent, and shunned, harassed or assaulted in everyday life as a result. Latinos and East Asians alike are mischaracterized as foreign foreigners, and the internal diversity within both groups is rendered invisible. In her essay, Anahi Viladrich points out that such stigmas are rarely divorced from how humans interact in everyday life and indeed, might inform the kind of health care that people receive. More research should be done on how this racialized blame game of COVID-19 has been experienced, including within a health care system that has been under siege, and the stresses for New Yorkers of color trying to process and recover from not only the pandemic but also being the objects of blame.

COVID-19 and the global protests around the inexplicable death of George Floyd and police violence against black Americans signal a crucial moment to conduct policy-relevant research that will be used to reduce the very inequalities that we are seeing so starkly. Our nation has been playing catch up in our efforts to understand, contain and combat this novel coronavirus. In many respects, we are already ahead of the game in our efforts to address the structural inequalities that COVID-19 has unearthed so suddenly. The call to move forward is imperative.

[1] Vivian Louie. 2005. Immigrant Student Populations and the Pipeline to College: Current

Considerations and Future Lines of Inquiry. Review of Research in Education 29: 69-105.

[2] This alternative measure takes into account regional variations in cost of living and the impact of benefits and the costs of working. Full details are available at: According to federal measures, the average poverty rate for Asian New Yorkers was lower but still 20 percent from 2012-2016. For further discussion of poverty among Asian Americans in New York City, see

[3] According to a 2007 report of the Fiscal Policy Institute, 23 percent of New York City’s undocumented population were from South and East Asia.

[4] Erika Lee. 2015. The Making of Asian America: A History. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[5] Gary Gerstle. 2007. “The Immigrant as Threat to American Security.” In From Arrival to Incorporation: Migrants to the U.S. in A Global Era, edited by Elliot Barkan, Hasia Diner and Alan M. Kraut. (Pp 217-245) New York: NYU Press.

[6] Vivian Louie. 2004. Compelled to Excel: Immigration, Education and Opportunity among Chinese Americans. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[7] Lee 2015; Bill Ong Hing, 2004, Defining America Through Immigration Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

[8] Mia Tuan. 1998. Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; Claire Jean Kim. 2000. Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Nazli Kibria. 2002. Becoming Asian American. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

[9] Louie 2004.

[10] Lee 2015.

[11] Bu Huang, Hoa B. Appel, Ethel G. Nicdao, Hyung J. Daniel Ya and Amy L. Ai. 2013. Chronic Conditions, Behavioral Health, and Use of Health Services Among Asian American Men: The First Nationally Representative Sample. American Journal of Men’s Health 7(1): 66–76; Ninez Ponce, AJ Scheitler, and Riti Shimkhada. 2016 July. Understanding the Culture of Health for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs): What do population-based health surveys across the nation tell us about the state of data disaggregation for AANHPIs? Report to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Alexander C. Adia, Jennifer Nazareno, Don Operario, and Ninez A. Ponce, 2020. Health Conditions, Outcomes, and Service Access Among Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Adults in California, 2011–2017. American Journal of Public Health 110, 520-526.

[12] Vivian Louie. 2011. Complicating the Story of Immigrant Integration. Pp. 219-235 in Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Vivian Louie and Roberto Suro, eds. Writing Immigration: Scholars andJournalists in Dialogue. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; Vivian Louie. 2012. Keeping the Immigrant Bargain: The Costs and Rewards of Success in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.


Vivian Louie is Professor of Urban Policy and Planning and Director of the Asian American Studies Center and Program at Hunter College. She was CUNY Thomas Tam Visiting Professor in the department from 2013-2014. Louie has been associate and assistant professor, and postdoctoral fellow in education, as well as lecturer in sociology at Harvard, and a program officer at the William T. Grant Foundation. She has also previously worked as a newspaper journalist, journalism teacher, and youth magazine editor.

Her research has focused on understanding the factors that shape success along the educational pipeline among immigrants and the children of immigrants. She is the author of two books, Compelled to Excel: Immigration, Education and Opportunity Among Chinese Americans (Stanford University Press) and Keeping the Immigrant Bargain: The Costs and Rewards of Success in America (Russell Sage Foundation)along with numerous scholarly articles, chapters, and entries. She is co-editor of a third book, Writing Immigration: Scholars and Journalists in Dialogue (University of California Press). Her research has been featured on NPR, All Things Considered and additional news outlets. She serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Louie earned her Ph.D. and M.A. from the Yale University Department of Sociology, M.A. from the Stanford University Department of Communication, and A.B. from Harvard University in History and Literature. She is a native New Yorker.