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Racial Bias in Perceptions of Disease and Policy (WP-20-57)

Sophie Trawalter, Nana-Bilkisu Habib, and James Druckman

Narratives about Africa as dark, depraved, and diseased justified the exploitation of African land and people. Today, these narratives may still have a hold on people’s fears about disease. In three experiments (N = 1803), participants report greater worry about a pandemic originating in Africa (vs. elsewhere). In turn, they report greater support for travel bans and loosening abortion restrictions (for a pandemic that can affect pregnant mothers and their fetuses). Moreover, in an archival study of newspaper articles of the 2015-2016 Zika pandemic (N = 1475), articles were more negative—for example, they included more death-related words—if they mentioned Africa. These data suggest that reactions to pandemics are biased, something the researchers also observe in the context of COVID-19; indeed, in a representative sample (N = 1200), participants report greater worry about COVID-19 if they read about its impact on an African (vs. European) country.

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This paper is published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.

Sophie Trawalter, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Psychology, University of Virginia

Nana-Bilkisu Habib, MPH, University of Virginia

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

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