Viral videos of senseless violence have captured public attention since crime began rising in 2020. Some of the most extreme examples are attacks against Asian-Americans. Earlier this year, for instance, three teens and an 11-year-old, all black, beat and kicked in the head a 70-year-old woman in San Francisco. Yet many academics, advocates, and reporters argue that these cases leave a false impression. “While news reports and social media have perpetuated the idea that anti-Asian violence is committed mostly by people of color,” reported NBC News last year, “a new analysis shows the majority of attackers are white.” Unfortunately, the crime against 70-year-old Mrs. Ren is representative in many ways.
The refrain that most anti-Asian crimes are committed by white people is misleading, if not meaningless. While the Department of Justice estimates that Asians are the victims of over 180,000 violent crimes every year, an average year sees fewer than 24 violent anti-Asian hate crimes. In a discussion about violence directed toward Asians, focusing on hate crimes is a transparent attempt to obscure. The data show that whites, despite being the largest racial group in the country, are not responsible for the largest share of violent crimes against Asians.
Where do these misleading talking points come from? One common source, quoted by both NBC and the San Francisco Chronicle, is a literature review by Janelle Wong of the University of Maryland titled Beyond the Headlines. But Wong’s review does not focus on violent crime: it covers hate incidents against Asian-Americans, the majority of which consist of “verbal harassment” and “shunning”—not crimes. Advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate reported similar findings: 82 percent of recorded anti-Asian incidents were not physically violent. Wong suggests that conservatives are conflating anti-Asian attacks with affirmative action admissions policies that benefit blacks at the expense of Asians—it’s “an old tactic in white supremacy’s playbook,” she says. Wong also claims “there’s not really an empirical basis” for the observation “that it’s predominantly Black people attacking Asian Americans who are elderly.”
Another source is the Virulent Hate Project of the University of Michigan, which produced a study titled Anti-Asian Racism in 2020. That study uses data from 4,337 news articles relating specifically to “coronavirus-related, anti-Asian racism in the United States.” Again, most of these incidents were not crimes. A San Francisco Chronicle article entitled “Studies show that white people drive anti-Asian hate. So why are the ‘solutions’ targeting brown people?” uses the 75 percent statistic from this study to make its point, blurring the line between designated hate incidents and actual violent crime.
But the Michigan study has severe limitations. More than one-third of the 1,023 incidents under review were “stigmatizing and discriminatory statements, images, policies, and proposals,” with 55 coming from Donald Trump alone. Fewer than one in six of the incidents counted as “physical harassment,” with one-third of those falling into the subcategory of “spitting, coughing and sneezing.” Of the 16 cases of physical harassment in which the perpetrator’s race was known, 12 had white perpetrators. Hence the stipulation that whites commit 75 percent of anti-Asian attacks. Of course, no meaningful conclusions can be drawn from just 16 incidents, especially given that the perpetrator’s race was not known in 86 percent of physical attacks. It’s also worth noting that none of the highly publicized violent attacks on Asians would qualify for inclusion in this study because none was reported as “coronavirus-related.”
Even the claim that whites commit most anti-Asian hate crimes is based on questionable statistics. The main source that covers actual hate crimes is a 2021 study published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice by Yan Zhang, Lening Zhang, and Francis Benton entitled “Hate Crimes against Asian Americans.” This study covers incidents from 1992–2014 and includes the figure that white people commit 74.5 percent of violent anti-Asian hate crimes. However, Zhang et al. excluded Asian-on-Asian incidents, left out incidents where the perpetrator’s race was unknown, and lumped together all non-white perpetrators. Meantime, the authors note that “hate crimes against Asian Americans are more likely than hate crimes against either African Americans or Hispanics to be committed by non-White offenders.” (Proximity doesn’t seem to explain the disparity: my own analysis—using newer hate-crime data and comparing the perpetrators with the “likely neighbors” of a given Asian-American—finds that whites were about 28 percent more likely, and blacks about 255 percent more likely, to attack Asians than neighborhood demographics might predict.)
Yet a difficulty remains in these analyses. The Zhang study yielded 329 anti-Asian hate crimes over a span of 23 years. My analysis returned 713 incidents over 30 years (fewer than 24 per year). If these numbers seem low, it is because almost no violent crimes get designated as hate crimes. Again, no meaningful conclusions can be drawn from so few reported incidents. A linguistic trick—interpreting “anti-Asian” in the narrowest legal sense of the term—enabled the pivot from violent crimes to hate crimes.
The above studies ignore almost all violent crimes, often in favor of nonviolent behaviors like tweets or shunning. Because the hate-crime designation is rare, and fewer than 14 percent of local jurisdictions reported even a single hate crime for inclusion in the FBI database, datasets are too small and incomplete to draw meaningful conclusions.
A more pertinent question would be: “Who is responsible for the greatest proportion of violent crimes against Asians?” The Criminal Victimization report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provides a robust dataset, with over 180,000 violent attacks on Asians in 2018.
The data indicate just how misleading the narrative of white-on-Asian violence really is. While black perpetrators account for 27.5 percent of violent attacks against Asians, Asians commit less than 0.1 percent of violent attacks against blacks, indicating little role for proximity. Most violent attacks against individuals of a particular racial group are committed by other members of that group—except for Asians, where a plurality is committed by blacks. In fact, blacks are responsible for 305 percent more violent crime against Asians than neighborhood demographics would predict, while whites and Hispanics commit significantly fewer attacks against Asians than would be expected.
The foregoing analysis shows that the frequent news stories covering black-on-Asian violence should not be attributed to disinformation or media bias. Indeed, repeating misleading statistics on hate crimes (or “incidents”) to blame whites (or “white supremacy”) is an attempt to redirect outrage. Examining the source studies suggests that proponents of this narrative seek to mislead, and that they rely on incomplete or irrelevant data to do so. The problem is that the media too often respond to viral videos of violent crime with uncritical repetition of statistics gleaned from studies that are not even about violent crime. These recorded attacks against Asians are not manufactured to stoke racial discord, as some imply. Curtailing the violence is an urgent matter. To do so, we must stop pretending not to see who is committing these crimes.
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