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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 that."
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," he said.
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 said.
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 Pacific Islanders."