Skip to main content

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.

Click here for supplementary information for this paper.

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

Download PDF