I THINK I KNOW THE ANSWER: Are Activists Protecting Asians from Hate–Or Protecting Their Narrative of White Supremacy from Criticism?
Asia Society, the global NGO dedicated to “forging closer ties between Asia and the West through arts, education, policy and business,” recently shared a video in which activist Manjusha P. Kulkarni spoke about anti-Asian attacks in the United States. Kulkarni, whose own group self-describes as a “national coalition addressing anti-Asian hate amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” emphasised that anti-black bigotry was causing people to falsely attribute these anti-Asian attacks to African American perpetrators:
And I will tell you that while we don’t collect ethnic specific data on perpetrators … we know that it is a very small minority that are African-American. And in fact, when we look at these broader types of discrimination, the ones that involve civil-rights violations, of course, we know that those are institutional actors, heads of businesses, et cetera, and that these are the folks who often, because of positions of power that they are in, are actually white.
The United States has witnessed some truly shocking anti-Asian attacks in recent months. On January 28th, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was out for a walk in San Francisco when he was violently shoved to the ground. He never regained consciousness after the assault. On January 31, in Oakland, a 91-year-old Asian man was shoved from behind, unprovoked. The same assailant later pushed a 60-year-old man and a 55-year-old woman to the ground, resulting in the woman losing consciousness. In March, an Asian woman in Bronx was struck on the head with an umbrella by four teenage girls who accused her of spreading COVID-19. On March 21st, in Manhattan, a woman was on her way to an anti-Asian violence protest when a man tore up her sign, and hit her twice in the face. During the same month, also in Manhattan, an Asian woman was knocked to the ground and kicked when she was on her way to church—footage shows some security guards looking on and doing nothing. On April 23rd, a 61-year-old Asian man in New York was struck in the back and knocked down; the suspect then stomped on his head repeatedly. On May 2nd, two Asian women were walking on the sidewalk in New York when an individual demanded they remove their masks and then struck one of the women on the head with a hammer. On May 4th, 85-year-old Chui Fong Eng and another woman were stabbed in broad daylight in San Francisco while they waited for a bus; Eng was left with a blade in her torso, which had to be removed surgically. Also in May, a 36-year-old Asian man was pushing his baby in a stroller outside a San Francisco supermarket when he was attacked; footage shows that he was trying to block blows to the head and back as his stroller rolled away.
If you have been following the news about such anti-Asian attacks in the United States over the past few months, you may have noticed that certain narratives have become prominent. The first—promoted by CNN, the Guardian, NPR, BBC, USA Today, the Cut, and NBC News, to name just a few representative examples—is that the attacks are related to COVID-19. And it is true that there has been a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic. In some cases, the attackers have even made explicit mention of the “Chinese virus,” or accused the victim of bringing the disease to the United States. In most cases, however, it is difficult to prove that any given attack is related to the pandemic.
A second theme has been the idea that Donald Trump is to blame for anti-Asian hate. Examples here include “‘No question’ Trump’s racist rhetoric fuelled anti-Asian hate, says White House” (the Independent), “Trump’s ‘Chinese Virus’ Tweet Helped Fuel Anti-Asian Hate On Twitter, Study Finds” (Forbes), and “U.S. outrage over Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric took a new turn this week after shootings at spas near Atlanta” (ABC News).
It certainly wasn’t helpful for the then-US president to describe COVID-19 as “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu,” especially when there are so many people who cannot seem to understand the distinction between the Chinese government and Asian Americans. There also seems to be a link between his expressions of bigotry and the appearance of copycat anti-Asian memes online. However, it was not until the beginning of 2021—nearly a year after the pandemic began, and a time when Trump was already out of office—when the surge in senseless attacks on Asian Americans began to be widely reported. The timing here is not consistent with the idea that Trump played a major role.
A third media narrative has been that anti-Asian violence is caused by white supremacy. At CNN, the headline was “White supremacy and hate are haunting Asian Americans.” At the State Press in Arizona, “Anti-Asian racism is a product of white supremacist norms that must be eliminated.” At the Conversation, “White supremacy is the root of all race-related violence in the US.”
Paradoxically, the backdrop to these articles is that in many cases—including every one of the examples I mentioned earlier in this essay—the suspects were found to be black. Explaining why black attacks on Asian victims is really the fault of white supremacy may seem difficult, but a surprisingly large number of writers and scholars have shown themselves eager to take up the challenge.
This brings us to the issue of crime statistics. Pandika bases her claims on a University of Michigan Virulent Hate Project study of news articles that describe incidents of anti-Asian racism. “In the 4,337 news articles that we reviewed, we identified 1,023 unique incidents of anti-Asian racism that occurred in the United States between January 1 and December 31, 2020,” the authors reported. And while “only a small fraction of news articles explicitly identified the race of the individuals who harassed or discriminated against Asian and Asian American people … in the few harassment incidents for which the news media explicitly stated the race of the offender, the majority of perpetrators of anti-Asian harassment were reported to be male and white.”
On page 14 of the study, we learn that the race of offenders was explicitly identified in only 57 anti-Asian harassment incidents. Of these 57 incidents, white individuals were reported as perpetrators in 44, Blacks in six, Hispanics in four, Chinese in three, Vietnamese in one. “The information that we have,” the authors conclude, “while limited and imperfect, does not support the common claim that Black hostility is driving the current epidemic of anti-Asian racism and violence.”
There are a few problems here, however. The first is that the data isn’t comprised of actual crime statistics, but just information gleaned from news articles. And even within those news article, only a tiny minority mention the perpetrator’s race. As the authors themselves note, “reporting practices might differ by the race of the perpetrator, and it is not clear how news outlets and individual reporters chose to navigate the complex issue of racial identification in its coverage of specific incidents discussed in the articles we reviewed.”
In regard to actual hate crimes, as that term is defined by the FBI, Voice of America has reported that “only two of the 20 people arrested last year in connection with [New York City anti-Asian hate crime] attacks were white, according to New York Police Department data analyzed by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Eleven were African Americans, six were white Hispanics and one was a Black Hispanic.” According to the reporter, Masood Farivar, “most police departments do not publish this kind of data, but anecdotal evidence suggests the pattern seen in New York has emerged in other cities, as well.”