Are Activists Protecting Asians from Hate—or Protecting Their Narrative of White Supremacy from Criticism?
Vigil Against Asian Hate, New York City, March 19th, 2021

Are Activists Protecting Asians from Hate—or Protecting Their Narrative of White Supremacy from Criticism?

Hai Di Nguyen
Hai Di Nguyen
10 min read

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.

In USA Today, for instance, a co-written article by leaders of Emerge (“the nation’s premier organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office”) and Run AAPI, which advocates in favour of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, wrote that “many have begun to point to a divide between Black and Asian Americans as the real issue facing our communities, instead of naming the true culprit: white supremacy.” In the same vein, Pulitzer-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen tweeted that “Asian Americans need to locate anti-Asian violence as part of a pattern of white supremacy which also targets Black and Brown and Indigenous people. Even if perpetrators of violence are people of color, the solution is not to fall back on racist assumptions of our own but to hold the system of white supremacy responsible for dividing us.”

I can understand the idea that the media should refrain from mentioning the race of assailants in these cases, so as not to increase racial tensions. But it is one thing to avoid mentioning race, and another thing to actively stoke the narrative that anti-Asian violence is caused—in all cases, regardless of a perpetrator’s race—by white supremacy.

Heather Mac Donald has written in some detail for Quillette about the false narratives surrounding anti-Asian attacks in the specific context of the March 18th Atlanta shootings (in which the shooter claimed that he was a sex addict, and targeted massage parlours rather than Asians specifically), so I will not write more about it here.

Instead, I’d like to point out the recent emergence of yet another narrative: Not only is white supremacy the root cause of all anti-Asian attacks, we are told, but the very mention of black assailants serves to bolster an illusory or harmful trope. Examples here include “Stop Blaming Black People for Anti-Asian Hate” (Newsweek), “Old tropes of Black-Asian conflict rear up after NY assault” (Chicago Tribune), and “Why the trope of Black-Asian conflict in the face of anti-Asian violence dismisses solidarity” (Brookings Institution).

On #StopAsianHate, a piece titled “The ‘Black-Asian Conflict’ Is a Problematic Trope—and It’s Time to End It” informs us that any anger directed at black assailants is a mask for “White establishment anxiety.” At Mic, Melissa Pandika argues that we should refrain from posting photos of suspects in anti-Asian hate crimes—but only if those suspects are black. “Posting photos of white suspects,” on the other hand, “can help counter the narrative that the majority of anti-Asian attacks are perpetrated by Black people, and convey what the research actually finds: White people are more likely to commit anti-Asian hate crimes.”

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.”

More importantly, the University of Michigan study groups together vastly different forms of behaviour, from harassment and vandalism down to “stigmatizing and discriminatory statements, images, policies, and proposals.” Among the 184 total incidents in which race is identified, more than two thirds consist of “stigmatizing statements and actions by politicians.” And even the category of physical harassment and violence groups together getting spat at and being assaulted with deadly force.

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.”

My intention here is not to perpetuate stereotypes about black people. Crime is perpetrated by individuals, not whole races. Moreover, to the extent that black people are overrepresented as assailants in this (or any other) kind of crime, it’s useful to note that crime often is linked to poverty and disadvantage, which disproportionately afflict American black communities. But that said, it is intellectually dishonest to ignore or deny the identity of real crime suspects in the service of protecting a certain kind of ideological narrative.

Even Asians themselves are being pressured to frame the attacks against them in this ideological context. UCLA lecturer Manjusha P. Kulkarni, the aforementioned co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, has admonished Asian Americans for their anti-black and “white adjacent” attitude. “Sadly, immigrants come to the United States often and understand right away the racial hierarchy that we have in our nation,” she states in her widely circulated video. “And so they know that if they want upward mobility, they want economic security, they need to align themselves with whites, essentially. And so you see a lot of that white adjacency in our community or efforts to strive toward white adjacency.”

Such language channels the idea that, as recently described by Quillette contributor Kenny Xu, the success of Asian-Americans can be traced to their “proximity to whiteness.” Seen through this lens, even when Asian Americans feel themselves under threat of physical attack, they bear a special moral responsibility to ensure that their response is ideologically onside with the fight against white supremacy.

What does this mean in practice? According to journalist Kayla Hui, this means that Asians must resist endorsing the most obvious source of relief from street crime: the police. “Policing only catalyzes racial tensions between Asian and Black communities,” Hui writes. By way of alternative, Hui urges “bystander and de-escalation training to learn how to intervene when anti-Asian hate and harassment occurs.” And in the long run, “Asian solidarity with Black and brown communities [would serve as] a catalyst for tackling white supremacy and the systems that continuously uphold and enable racism.”

Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, a black-led organisation based in Oakland, says that instead of funding increased policing as a means to prevent anti-Asian violence, money should go toward “groups that are doing this work anyway,” such as local community patrols. And in an NBC News article “Critics fear NYPD Asian hate crime task force could have unintended consequences,” reporter Kimmy Yam leads with the statement that “The New York Police Department’s new anti-Asian hate crimes task force could inadvertently put Asian Americans in opposition to other communities of color, some activists fear.”

In response to the recent spate of anti-Asian attacks, the US government has enacted the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which promotes the reporting of hate crimes at local and state levels. One might think that Asian groups would welcome the move. Yet a coalition of over 100 Asian and LGBTQ organisations have opposed the law, on the basis that the mere collection and reporting of hate-crime data “contradicts Asian solidarity with Black, Brown, undocumented, trans, low-income, sex worker, and other marginalized communities whose liberation is bound together.” The idea here is that police should be removed from “communities and neighborhoods” altogether; and that the security of the population should instead rest on such “community alternatives” as “non-coercive mental healthcare infrastructures, neighborhood-based trauma centers [and] community food banks.”

The signatories believe that collecting crime statistics and empowering the police more generally fails to address “the structural conditions that lead to violence against marginalized communities.” Obviously, they are free to argue for such a wholesale reorientation of American public policy (even if it flies in the face of recent evidence). But it is disingenuous to pretend that they are doing so in the service of protecting Asian people from physical attacks, or protecting the interests of Asians more generally. From first to last, this manifesto reads as a defence of a certain ideological stance. And to the extent that Asians are treated as autonomous political actors, it is on the expectation that they will play their assigned role in expressing “solidarity” with other groups.

Indeed, one wonders what the true goal is here. Advocates will tell you that their fight against white supremacy is a means to protect hate-crime victims. But often it seems that means and end have become reversed, and that these crimes now serve as a prop in the larger ideological campaign against our supposedly white-supremacy-saturated culture—a campaign that Asians themselves are now being pressured to join. Whatever you may think of this ideology, it seems doubtful that its champions are motivated primarily by the need to protect Asians from violence.

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Hai Di Nguyen

Hai Di Nguyen blogs at The Little White Attic, and tweets at @nguyenhdi.