While news reports and social media have perpetuated the idea that
anti-Asian violence is committed mostly by people of color, a new
analysis shows the majority of attackers are white.
Janelle Wong, a professor of American Studies at the University of
Maryland, College Park, released analysis last week that drew on
previously published studies on anti-Asian bias. She found official
crime statistics and other studies revealed more than three-quarters
of offenders of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents, from both
before and during the pandemic, have been white, contrary to many of
the images circulating online.
Wong told NBC Asian America that such dangerous misconceptions about
who perpetrates anti-Asian hate incidents can have "long-term
consequences for racial solidarity."
"The way that the media is covering and the way that people are
understanding anti-Asian hate at this moment, in some ways, draws
attention to these long-standing anti-Asian biases in U.S. society,"
Wong said. "But the racist kind of tropes that come along with it — especially that it's predominantly Black people attacking Asian
Americans who are elderly — there's not really an empirical basis in
Wong examined nine sources and four types of data about anti-Asian
hate incidents, including from the reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate,
Pew Research, as well as official law enforcement statistics, the
majority of them spanning the year and a half when the #StopAAPIHate
hashtag was trending. She found major contradictions in the
prevailing narrative around perpetrators, victims, and the general
environment of racism toward Asian Americans during the coronavirus
pandemic. She said such misleading conclusions could be attributed
to the lack of context around images, the failure to amplify all
aspects of the data or misinterpretations of the research.
A misread of a frequently cited study from this year, published in
the American Journal of Criminal Justice, likely contributed to the
spread of erroneous narratives, Wong said. The study, which examined
hate crime data from 1992 to 2014, found that compared to anti-Black
and anti-Latino hate crimes, a higher proportion of perpetrators of
anti-Asian hate crimes were people of color. Still, 75 percent of
perpetrators were white.
Other studies confirm the findings, Wong wrote. She pointed to
separate research from the University of Michigan Virulent Hate
Project, which examined media reports about anti-Asian incidents
last year and found that upward of 75 percentof news stories
identified perpetrators as male and white in instances of physical
or verbal assault and harassment when the race of the perpetrator
was confirmed. Wong said the numbers could even be an underestimate.
"This is really how crime is framed in the United States — it's
framed as the source is Black," Wong said.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data, a data and civic
engagement nonprofit group, for which Wong also works, said that the
public's perception of perpetrators and victims is largely formed by
the images that have been widely circulated — but that they aren't representative of most anti-Asian bias incidents. For example, the
videos that have gone viral are more likely to be from low-income,
urban areas where there is more surveillance, he said.
"You have security camera videos that are more available and
prevalent in certain types of urban settings. And so that's what's
available to people in terms of sharing," Ramakrishnan said. "The
videos are more viral than if it's something that doesn't have any
imagery or video connected to it, like something that's happening in
the suburbs, for example."
When they are circulated, they play on a loop with no audio. Even
though the videos alone don't provide much detail about what's
happening, they dominate our perceptions, Ramakrishnan said.
"There's just something so powerful about these visual images so
that no matter what the social science might say, people believe
their eyes and especially the images that get played on repeat now,"
Ramakrishnan said anti-Blackness among Asian Americans and the
diaspora could also affect how such images are disseminated. Often,
videos that confirm prejudices are shared not only on U.S. social
networks but also on international messaging apps.
"These kinds of images and narratives of racial tension — Black
violence on Asian people — are getting shared in Asia, as well.
There is a transnational component to it," he said. "Whatever aspect
of anti-Black racism or racial prejudice that some Asian Americans
might have will also matter, in terms of what ends up being more
prominent, because these go to social networks, especially through
social networks apps, as well."
Wong said many erroneous assumptions persist about the identities of
victims and the types of hate incidents they have confronted. She
said there's a widely held belief that such incidents are generally
violent, when studies show that most of the racism Asian Americans
have faced because of the pandemic is verbal harassment or shunning.
Wong said that although older Asian women are typically thought of
as the victims of such crimes, research shows that about 7 percent
of reported incidents have involved anyone over 60.
Wong said that while any hate crime or incident is unacceptable, the astronomical increases often reported in headlines don't capture the
full picture of anti-Asian hate. The baseline for anti-Asian hate
crimes and incidents has been relatively low, meaning a small growth
in the total number of hate incidents can lead to large percentage
increases. For example, data indicate that the largest increase
occurred in New York City, which jumped from three to 28 anti-Asian
hate crimes from 2019 to 2020, about an 833 percent surge.
Meanwhile, Sacramento, California, increased from one to eight
anti-Asian crimes from 2019 to 2020 — a small jump in raw numbers
that equates to an increase of 700 percent.
"Even in jurisdictions reporting the most dramatic year-over-year
increases in hate crimes, like New York City, the rate was lower
than the proportion of Asian Americans in the population," Wong
Asian Americans aren't the only racial group that has met challenges
during the pandemic. Wong said official law enforcement statistics
show that in the 26 largest jurisdictions, which include areas like
New York City, anti-Asian hate crimes accounted for 6.3 percent of
all reported hate crimes.
Black Americans have long faced higher rates of hate crimes. Even
though official 2019 law enforcement data show a drop in anti-Black
hate crime reports, Black people were still, by far, the most
targeted racial group, Wong said. That year, 58 percent of reported
hate crimes were motivated by anti-Black bias, while a far smaller
proportion, 4 percent, were motivated by anti-Asian bias. About 14
percent were motivated by anti-Latino bias.
Last year, when Asian Americans dealt with coronavirus-specific
stereotypes, 27 percent of Asian Americans reported having ever
experienced hate crimes or incidents, while 34 percent of Black
Americans did, according to an AAPI Data survey.
"People overestimate the degree to which they, individually, are
likely to be the victim of the crime. And so what we're seeing right
now, because there's so much media coverage — even though we see
that Asian Americans account for, no matter how you cut it, a
minority of the hate crimes in any place — they feel like they're
the most likely to be attacked," she said.
That isn't to say that increases haven't occurred or that verbal
harassment and such incidents aren't of concern, Wong said. There
has been a marked increase in discrimination toward Asian Americans
that deserves attention. But selectively amplifying aspects of the
issue or omitting context can further perpetuate dangerous
stereotypes and break opportunities for solidarity among
marginalized groups, she said. Ramakrishnan said that when people
reach for policy solutions based on insufficient information, they
may not solve the issue.
Ramakrishnan called on the media and other institutions not only to
add more context to information, but also to draw responsible
conclusions from the data. He also emphasized that while the media
are hyperfocused on anti-Asian crimes, Asian American and Pacific
Islanders deal with a vast range of issues, including language
barriers and immigration struggles, which aren't captured in
coverage of pandemic racism.
"Nuance is difficult to get people to rally around and pay attention
to. Sensationalism is what gets attention. But hopefully, it's the
nuance that keeps them there so they want to go deeper in their
understanding," Ramakrishnan said. "I'm hopeful that what got a lot
of people to care and pay attention were these hate incidents and
horrific crimes but hoping that what keeps people interested is
understanding the larger set of issues that affect these American