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Race and False Hate Crime Narratives

Press reports refer to activists condemning “anti-Asian racism” and fighting anti-Asian “hate.”

· 12 min read
Race and False Hate Crime Narratives
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The reaction to the mass shootings in Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta, Georgia, over the last week has revealed how invested the Democratic establishment is in one all-powerful narrative. Both shootings produced an immediate response from the media, Democratic politicians, and activists—that the slaughters were the result of white supremacy and that white Americans are the biggest threat facing the US. That interpretation was reached, in the case of the Boulder shooting, on the slimmest of evidence, and in the case of the Atlanta shooting, in the face of contradictory facts.

After the Boulder supermarket attacks, social media lit up with gloating pronouncements that the shooter was a violent white male and part of what Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece declared (in a since-deleted tweet) to be the “greatest terrorist threat to our country.” (Video of the handcuffed shooter being led away by the police appeared to show a white male.) Now that the shooter’s identity has been revealed as Syrian-American and his tirades against the “Islamophobia industry” unearthed, that line of thought has been quietly retired and replaced with the stand-by Democratic response to mass shootings—demands for gun control.

But the false narrative about the Atlanta spa shootings still has legs. It represents a double lie—first, that the massacre was the product of Trump-inspired xenophobic hatred, and second, that whites are the biggest perpetrators of violence against Asians. The most striking aspect of these untruths is the fact that they were fabricated in plain sight and in open defiance of reality. Given the enduring hold of the Atlanta story on mainstream discourse, it is worth examining in some detail.

On March 16th, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long allegedly opened fire at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. Six of his eight victims were Asian. The analysis was instantaneous and universal—the shootings were the product of anti-Asian hatred, whipped up by Trump’s criticism of China for allegedly unleashing the coronavirus on the world. Protests broke out across the country against the scapegoating of Asians. Protest signs read “I am not a virus”; “Asians are not viruses, racism is!!”; “End white supremacy now!”; “All of us against racism.”

The Racism Treadmill
If racism still looms large in our social and political lives, then, as one left-wing commentator put it, “progress is debatable.”

An organizer of a protest in Alhambra, California, told the Los Angeles Times: “I think it’s important for Black and Asian communities to work together on this because at the end of the day, it’s about dismantling white supremacy and speaking out against white racism.” The New York Times ran front-page story after front-page story linking the Atlanta murders to anti-Asian COVID propaganda; CNN and MSNBC went into programming overdrive about the alleged wave of Trump-inspired xenophobia. On March 21st, MSNBC anchor Alex Witt suggested that we should be concerned about the prospect of more white supremacist violence over the summer.

At Emory University in Atlanta, Kamala Harris announced that America faces many internal “foes” (read: Trump’s followers, who have bought into what she called his “scapegoating [of] Asian-Americans”). The attacks showed yet again, Harris said, that “racism is real in America and it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too.” Speaking alongside Harris, President Joe Biden returned to a theme from his 2021 inauguration speech—that hate is embedded in Americans’ hearts. “We have to change our hearts. Hate can have no safe harbor in America. It must stop.” Because hatred is so rooted in our history, Biden said, it is “so often met with silence … But that has to change, because our silence is complicity.”

The problem with this interpretation was that there was no evidence to support it. Long told the police that he had targeted the three Atlanta spas to purge himself of his lust and his addiction to pornography. This explanation is wholly credible. All three establishments have been investigated for prostitution, and Long had frequented at least two of them. Customer reviews of the massage parlors attest to their provision of sexual services. Long has said nothing about Asian responsibility for the coronavirus. Indeed, if he were upset by a supposed connection between Asians and the pandemic, one would expect him to have avoided close contact with Asians. By all accounts, Long was tormented by an inability to control his sexual thoughts and behavior, which he believed to be a violation of his Christian faith. He also said nothing about hatred of Asians per se. Perhaps a revelation of anti-Asian animus will emerge, but for now, Long appears to have targeted presumed sex workers who happened, given the demographics of the massage trade in Atlanta, to be Asian. Long intended to target a business in Florida next that made pornography, he told police. The employees there were unlikely to be Asian.

The uncontradicted evidence for Long’s motivation and the absence of evidence for a white supremacist impulse were no impediment to the narrative. Anyone who doubted that narrative was complicit in white supremacy. Reuters was reprimanded on social media for the headline: “Sex addiction, not racial hatred, may have driven suspect in Georgia spa shootings.” The news organization’s revised attempt—“Motive in Georgia spa shootings uncertain, but Asian-Americans fearful”—earned it no absolution. “We don’t let mass casualty shooters diagnose themselves,” sniffed a terrorism expert at Georgia State University. Needless to say, had Long told the police that he was seeking revenge on Asians for COVID, his self-diagnosis would have been taken as definitive proof.

Both Harris and Biden obliquely referred to the question of motive while dismissing its relevance. “Whatever the killer’s motive, these facts are clear,” Harris said. “Six out of the eight people killed on Tuesday night were of Asian descent.” Biden was similarly unconcerned about the relationship between Long’s intentions and the atrocity’s significance: “Whatever the motivation, we know this: Too many Asian-Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying.”

But in stigmatizing and punishing hate crimes, motive is the entire issue. If Long were not exacting revenge for the coronavirus, there is no basis for characterizing the shootings as hate crimes and for lambasting uninvolved Americans for sharing Long’s hatred in their “hearts.” And if the fact that 75 percent of Long’s victims were Asian turns the shootings into an anti-Asian hate crime, then the fact that 100 percent of Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa’s victims in Boulder were white should turn that shooting into an anti-white hate crime.

Nowhere was the compulsion to buttress the meme about white supremacist violence clearer than in the treatment of the actual street violence that Asians have long suffered. Before the Atlanta shootings, there had been a recent string of attacks on elderly Asians, especially in California’s Bay Area. On January 28th, 2021, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was walking in his driveway in San Francisco. A 19-year-old male barreled into him, knocking him to the ground. The male, Antoine Watson, was accompanied by a 20-year-old female. Two days later, Ratanapakdee died of his injuries. In March, an elderly woman was beaten during a robbery in broad daylight in Daly City. The attacker stripped her of her belongings and started to leave, before returning to club her again. In San Jose, on February 5th, a 64-year-old Vietnamese grandmother was getting into her car after withdrawing $1,000 in cash in advance of the Lunar New Year. Two males yanked open the car door, grabbed the woman’s purse, keys, and phone, and fled.

Anti-Asian Discrimination Is Real and an Attack on American Values
The self-selection bias of immigrants does not dilute the story.

On January 31st, 2021, a 91-year-old man was walking gingerly along an Oakland sidewalk when a young male in a hoodie came up behind and pushed him to the ground. As the man’s head hung over the curb into the street, the assailant calmly continued his walk. A 60-year-old man and a 55-year-old woman were attacked in Oakland’s Chinatown by the same assailant. Seventy-five-year-old Pak Ho was robbed and killed while taking his morning walk near Oakland’s Lake Merritt in March. He hit his head on the sidewalk and was taken off life support for brain trauma shortly thereafter. On February 3rd, a 71-year-old grandmother was walking across an Oakland sidewalk towards her apartment when a young man dashed up and knocked her to the ground. A second male ran up and danced around as the first pulled the woman’s purse from her prone body, breaking the strap. Both males then ran off with the booty.

On February 23rd, two 19-year-olds and a 20-year-old walked into a San Francisco laundromat where a 67-year-old man was sitting. They kicked him to the ground, dangled him upside down by his legs, twisted him back and forth and beat him while they rifled through his pockets. Finally, they found his wallet and walked out the door. In January 2019, an 88-year-old great-grandmother, Yik Oi Huang, went missing. When her son searched the park next to her home, he saw what he thought was a pile of old clothes next to a recycling bin. It was his mother, beaten so brutally as to be unrecognizable and choking on her own blood. Her pants were down and her belly exposed. The 18-year-old suspect had gone on to burglarize her home, stealing jewelry and house keys before fleeing the area. Huang died a year later. On March 18th, 2021, a man allegedly yelled “you motherfucking Asian!” as he knocked a 68-year-old Sri Lankan unconscious on a New York subway. The man remains in a critical condition. On March 21st, 2021, a 37-year-old woman attending a rally in lower Manhattan against anti-Asian violence was punched twice in the face by a man who took her protest sign and stuffed it in a trash can. In March 2020, four teenage girls assaulted a 51-year-old woman on a bus in the Bronx, hitting her with an umbrella and accusing her of spreading the coronavirus. Here was a more promising story of Trump-inspired COVID xenophobia, if only the girls had been a different race.

In fact, the suspects in all of these cases were black; the news reports rarely mentioned that detail. Had the suspects been white, their race would have led each news report, as it did for Robert Aaron Long. A former member of the Oakland police department’s robbery undercover suppression team tells me that this racial pattern of attack and its lack of coverage is longstanding. No one cares about Asian robbery victims, he says, “We used to follow around elderly Asians, waiting for the bad guys to start circling. This has been one of my long-term frustrations. They are pretending to care now but ironically blaming it on white supremacy”—even though the suspects in Asian robbery attacks are almost exclusively, in this cop’s experience, black.

The New York Police Department compiles the most extensive data on hate crimes in the country. These data confirm the Oakland officer’s observation. A black New Yorker is over six times as likely to commit a hate crime against an Asian as a white New Yorker, according to New York Police Department data. In 2020, blacks made up 50 percent of all suspects in anti-Asian attacks in New York City, even though blacks are 24 percent of the city’s population. Whites made up 10 percent of all suspects in anti-Asian attacks in 2020 in New York City but account for 32 percent of the city’s population. If we include black Hispanics in the black category, blacks account for 60 percent of all anti-Asian attacks in 2020.

Inner-city animus against Asian small business owners is also longstanding, as the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 1990 Big Apple grocery boycott in New York City recall. The predominantly black character of the attacks on elderly Asians may be euphemistically acknowledged in only one context: disparate impact. Racial justice advocates oppose a law enforcement response to those attacks because, the New York Times explained, going to the police would have a disparate impact on “Black and Latino communities.” Actors Daniel Kim and Daniel Wu had offered a $25,000 reward to anyone who helped find the assailant in the January 31st assault on the 91-year-old man and two other Asians in Oakland. Teen Vogue contributor Kim Tran criticized them both for failing to understand “why it’s problematic to offer 25k for information about a Black man in Oakland.” In response to a polite objection, she added: “this looks a lot like a bounty on a Black person funded by Asian American celebrities.” According to Time magazine, the reward underscored the problem of how to “tackle anti-Asian violence without relying on law enforcement institutions that have historically targeted Black and brown communities.” Neither Time nor Kim Tran explicitly said that anti-Asian violence is predominantly black—we are left to infer that for ourselves.

In disparate impact analysis, it is the government response to antisocial behavior that is the problem, not the behavior itself. A supervising attorney with the Racial Justice Unit at Legal Aid in New York City told the New York Times: “I’ve rarely seen people who are more socially privileged be the ones accused of hate crimes. Often what you end up seeing is people of color being accused of hate crimes.” Maybe that is because those are the people disproportionately committing hate crimes. But that possibility must not be granted. Biden chastised the country for its silence about anti-Asian violence. The reason for that silence, however, is that blacks are the primary drivers of this violence. Acknowledging these assaults only became acceptable when there was a white perpetrator, even if his motive did not fit the story being told.

Two other strategies have emerged for ducking the reality of anti-Asian violence. The first of these is a retreat into denial. Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine, told Slate that she was asked by Asian reporters if black people are going after Asians. Those reporters had apparently seen the videos. Kim pushed back against what is patently obvious. “I kept asking them, What’s the evidence? Are there other videos? There was a rush to judgment about these cases all being about Black people going after Asians, and when you think about the tendency in American society to criminalize Black people, it’s a problem to reach for that frame and apply it before the evidence warrants it.” [emphasis in original] A COVID-xenophobic frame was applied to Long before the evidence warranted it, but never mind.

The second strategy is simply to change the subject. In a Los Angeles Times column, Erika D. Smith notes that activists are “blaming white supremacy, systemic racism and the societal constructs that support them” for “racially motivated crimes,” rather than “focusing on individual perpetrators and demanding more policing.” In her Slate interview, Claire Jean Kim complained that focusing on the “Asian-Black thing” takes “attention away from the larger structures of power in which they’re embedded.” A racial justice educator, Bianca Mabute-Louie, warned about focusing on interracial (i.e., black-Asian) conflict, since doing so would deflect from recognizing that “racism is a result of white supremacy,” as Time put it. It turns out that white supremacy has been bashing frail Asians over the head, not individual criminals.

White supremacy is also apparently getting whites beaten up. Blacks commit 88 percent of all interracial violence between whites and blacks, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Yet on March 22nd, 2021, CNN ran a special entitled “Afraid: Fear in America’s Communities of Color,” as if whites were putting US minorities at risk. The move to blame white supremacy for black-perpetrated attacks on Asians results in a strange linguistic divide. Press reports refer to activists condemning “anti-Asian racism” and fighting anti-Asian “hate.” The intended referent in such observations is whites. But the actual referent is blacks.

The lie about white supremacist violence is not innocuous. It forms the basis of the Biden administration’s policy in national security and in a host of domestic welfare programs. It is the pretext for Big Tech and Big Media’s silencing of speech. And the shamelessness with which that lie is constructed grows more brazen by the day. It must be fought with facts before it irrevocably alters our culture.

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