A Closer Look: Behind the Rise in Anti-Asian Attacks

March 23, 2021 Updated: March 25, 2021

Horrific headlines have recently proliferated across social media and the news industry depicting Asian Americans as victims of an increasing spate of assaults, both verbal and physical. Examining what’s behind the trend requires a deeper look into a complex, multifaceted issue.

The Epoch Times spoke to nearly a dozen people spanning different backgrounds, expertise, and personal experiences. These included Asian Americans who have experienced racism firsthand, attorneys with expertise on hate crimes, former law enforcement officials, public safety experts, scholars, activists, and more.

Racism has always existed, and in recent years, Asians have increasingly been prey to racially motivated crimes, although the extent of the problem varies depending on the source. Hate crimes have historically gone underreported, and most victims, especially immigrants, are hesitant to report anything to the authorities. Reliable national data on anti-Asian hate crimes, and the history behind them, is also scarce.

According to data from the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, there were 3,795 incidents reported from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021. Verbal harassment accounted for 68 percent of all reports, while physical assaults made up just over 11 percent. The report contains firsthand accounts that detail the use of racial slurs and instances of shunning.

Federal data show that there were 158 anti-Asian hate crimes reported in 2019 by police agencies to the FBI, up from 148 the year before ; more recent data have yet to be released. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University said that anti-Asian hate crimes surged in 16 of America’s largest cities by 149 percent in 2020, according to an analysis of official preliminary police data. The first spike took place in March and April as the country started lockdowns over the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.

One scholar who testified before the House Judiciary Committee on March 18, at a hearing titled “Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans,” said that while some offenses were no doubt motivated by bias, it’s best to “be cautious when interpreting the broader trend solely as a spike in hate crimes,” as these crimes “should be understood as part of a larger surge in violence.”

Charles Fain Lehman, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who works primarily on the institute’s Policing and Public Safety Initiative, testified that while some of the recent attacks were obviously due to racial bias, the reasons behind others weren’t as clear. He brought up Yahya Muslim, a homeless person who was arrested for shoving three Asian adults in Oakland’s Chinatown. Muslim’s defense counsel blamed the attacks on his history of mental illness and claimed any other narrative was “false, misleading, and divisive.” Lehman listed a number of similar cases.

“I’m fairly certain that the general increase in crime is part of what’s driving this more particular increase, although it may not be exhaustively what’s driving it,” Lehman told The Epoch Times.

Epoch Times Photo
A person lights candles during a vigil for victims of anti-Asian hate crimes at Union Square in New York on March 19, 2021. (Chung I Ho/The Epoch Times)

Criminologist Jeff Asher estimated that 2020 saw the largest one-year spike in homicides on record, as murder increased by more than 30 percent in nearly 40 major cities. This trend appears to have continued into this year, according to new data.

“That pattern appears in cities where Asian residents are being attacked,” Lehman said in his testimony, where he also called the violent attacks “a product of free-roaming criminals,” and added, “If anything is to blame for the terror now plaguing Asian Americans, it is public officials’ dereliction of their duty to preserve public safety.”

There is always a danger in misidentifying hate crimes, said Lehman, who noted that related charges can carry a substantial added penalty in terms of years served.

“I think that the people making this argument are often the same people who think that our justice system is too punitive,” he told The Epoch Times. “If a homeless, mentally ill man charged three Asian adults and tackled them, I think how we deal with him should not necessarily be to give him 10 years for multiple hate crimes.

“It’s important to push back on bigotry and racism. But the best response is to keep people safe, and the best tool for keeping people safe is the criminal justice system.

“It’s very hard to change the minds of bigots and racists; it’s much easier to keep the streets safe. That means fully funding police departments. That means putting more cops on the beats, especially in Asian American neighborhoods.”

Some activists and groups, however, argue that any lasting solution to the issue will be more complex than just sending more police officers into Asian communities.

In at least some circumstances, “the global pandemic has fueled the specific hate crimes against Asians,” according to Brian Higgins, a retired chief of Bergen County Police in New Jersey, where he served for 27 years.

Higgins, an adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said whenever there is a large population of first-generation Americans or immigrants, such as in New Jersey and New York City where there is an influx of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people, many are reluctant to report crimes to the police.

“Because you’re in another country, the culture is not to trust the police,” Higgins told The Epoch Times. “They keep it within their own community.”

Bergen County, where Higgins spent most of his law enforcement career, has a significant population of Korean Americans. He said that as these immigrant populations grow, “you’re going to have, as you would imagine, more crimes—whether they’re specifically hate crimes or not—involving Asians.”

But Higgins also cautioned about trying to dig into the underlying motivations in certain cases.

“I think what happens sometimes is we get too technical,” he said. “I think if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”

Personal Stories

As the recent wave of incidents gained attention, Asian Americans started telling their stories about experiencing racism while growing up. Many Asian immigrants made the move to the United States hoping for a better future for their children.

Carolyn Kamii’s family first immigrated from Japan to California more than a century ago. They arrived in Los Angeles during the 1890s and bought farmland, which they worked until they were made to give it up during the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“Racism against Asians is not new to me, growing up in LA,” Kamii told The Epoch Times. “My family endured a lot since they arrived in the 19th century. … LA in the early 20th century was hateful toward immigrants, especially Asians.”

Kamii’s great uncle was Judge John Aiso—the first Asian appointed to LA’s superior court. As a child, he was voted junior high class president by his peers, but white parents protested the move, saying a Japanese person shouldn’t be president. Aiso also won a national oratorical position as a Hollywood High School student, but was forced to step down and coach his runner-up. He later attended Harvard Law School.

Kamii believes the recent incidents go “beyond the virus” in terms of what’s fueling it. She mentioned a Los Angeles Times story about a Chinese family who moved into middle-class black Ladera Heights last year from Covina, a less affluent area, and were harassed for months at all hours of the night. It became such a problem that their neighbors stepped in to help stand guard against their nightly harassers.

Epoch Times Photo
Carolyn Kamii. (Courtesy of Carolyn Kamii)

“I think it relates to how cultures who are making inroads into middle-class white communities are perceived by the existing class,” she said. “I think these recent episodes are a continuation of how white culture feels when minorities start taking up public positions of authority, occupying places in the middle class, ‘getting ahead,’ etc.—partially fear, partially envy.”

Christopher Rim, an Asian American who is the founder and CEO of Command Education, an education and admissions consultancy headquartered in New York City, said that anti-Asian hate crimes and sentiments “have always been present in this country.”

“We’ve seen it throughout the history of this country, but within the past year, anti-Asian hate crimes have spiked following the words and actions of President Donald Trump amid the coronavirus pandemic,” Rim told The Epoch Times. “We must revisit hate crime laws to better protect people of color and our communities.”

Trump has denied that using the term “China virus” had anything to do with race. “It’s not racist at all,” he said in March 2020. “It comes from China. That’s why.”

Viruses are often named after their place of origin, as is common in naming diseases. The Epoch Times, for its part, made the decision in March 2020 to refer to the virus as the “CCP virus,” to reflect the role of the Chinese Communist Party in failing to contain the virus’s spread to the world.

CCP officials knew in early December 2019 that the virus had appeared in Wuhan, but nevertheless sat on the information for six weeks as locals and visitors continued to come and go, spreading the virus around the world uninhibited. CCP officials arrested those who tried to warn of the danger, accusing them of spreading “rumors,” while also employing the communist regime’s rigorous censorship to prevent media coverage and delete any mentions of it from social media.

Jason Miller, spokesman and adviser for the former president, didn’t respond by press time to requests from The Epoch Times for comment about Trump’s use of the term “China virus.”

Art Chang, an Asian American who is running for mayor of New York City, said one of the reasons he moved to the city in 1985 “was to escape racism in Ohio, where I grew up, and New Haven, Connecticut, where I attended college.”

“I have experienced the occasional ‘gook,’ ‘chink,’ and ‘charlie,’ over the years, but a far cry from what I experienced before,” Chang told The Epoch Times.

Chang said he has never before seen the current level of community support and energy going to Asian American organizations.

Some, like Sheena Yap Chan, a keynote speaker, podcaster, and author, blamed the issue on the “model minority myth,” a term commonly used to describe a minority group “perceived as particularly successful, especially in a manner that contrasts with other minority groups,” according to a report from Harvard Law School.

“Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the model minority argument, however, is an underlying methodological shortcoming—an inability to account for the nuanced composition of the Asian American community itself,” the report notes.

Chan told The Epoch Times that the model minority myth “has dehumanized Asian women in today’s society.”

“Women are less likely to report a crime due to our upbringing,” she said. “When something traumatic happens, we usually keep it to ourselves or ignore that it happened. Also, growing up in Asian culture, we want to save face and never tarnish the family name even if that traumatic experience isn’t our fault. … We end up being the easy target.”

Asian Americans in recent years have also accused Ivy League colleges such as Harvard of discriminating against them as the institutions attempt to provide opportunities to racial groups underrepresented in their schools.

Author and journalist Kenny Xu, who wrote the book “An Inconvenient Minority,” told The Epoch Times recently that Asian Americans have inconvenienced the left’s narrative of privileged whites and oppressed people of color.

“It raises this fundamental tension, I think, in our society, especially in our ‘woke’ culture, which is what happens when you privilege the narrative of certain minorities over others, because Asian Americans are often second class in the left’s racial narrative today,” Xu said.

Meanwhile, some Asian American writers and scholars such as Wenyuan Wu, executive director at Californians for Equal Rights, and Melissa Chen, New York editor at The Spectator, have cautioned against trying to solve problems using race and identity politics, warning that it has harmful ramifications.

Hate Crime Laws and Bail Reform

Hate crime laws have been the subject of much debate in recent years. The FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

The FBI definition states that “hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”

David Clark, an attorney at the Clark Law office based in Michigan, said hate crime convictions are rare, “due to the need for a proven intent when convicting someone of this charge, especially since the intent must be beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“Murder charges are more prevalent as they are direct, utilizing the crime itself as evidence enough to prove the validity of the charge,” Clark told The Epoch Times. “Hate crimes, however, require harder and more complex ways to secure a conviction, thus making suspects harder to prosecute.”

Epoch Times Photo
People attend a vigil for victims of anti-Asian hate crimes at Union Square in New York on March 19, 2021. (Chung I Ho/The Epoch Times)

Higgins said it’s “extremely difficult” to charge someone with a hate crime because of the way the laws are written. “You have to get into somebody’s mind” and prove you knew their thoughts at the time, he said, adding that often the only way to do this is to check the suspect’s social media posts, or their emails and texts.

“If an individual goes to a neighborhood that has a high population of Asian Americans and commits a crime against one of those people, … did that person specifically go to that neighborhood to target a specific group?” Higgins told The Epoch Times.

Higgins also warned about the premise of hate crime charges. “We want to stamp out racism, we want to prevent hate crimes, right? But what if I don’t hate you because of your color and I beat you up—should I be charged with something less?” he said. “It’s still a violent crime against a human being.”

Police officers are often sent to respond to crime spikes, Higgins said, but there are also other responses, such as community engagement and awareness of the issue. He warned that people should be careful not to politicize the issue.

Bail reform laws also need to be tweaked, and potentially removed, according to Higgins. When there was a surge in anti-Semitic attacks last year in New York, Jewish leaders and residents told The Epoch Times that the city’s new bail-reform laws—which let offenders out of prison without paying bail—were too lenient, saying it encourages attackers to re-offend.

“Rethinking the changes to bail laws will definitely go toward reducing hate crimes,” Higgins said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a direct result, but to what extent I don’t really know. If you look at when bail reform came in, the spikes in crime were very closely related.

“There’s no fear in going to jail anymore. There are multiple examples of individuals who have committed multiple crimes over several days who were arrested and released, arrested and released.”

Lehman told The Epoch Times: “Even if 90 percent of people you released on bail don’t commit more crimes, the other 10 percent are going to go out and offend again. We know that crime is a highly concentrated phenomenon. A good predictor of being a criminal offender is having been a criminal offender.”

CCP Exploitation

Amidst all of this, the CCP hasn’t hesitated in exploiting the recent narrative to push its own propaganda and to further divide the United States, according to scholars, human rights activists, and journalists, who have pointed out that the Chinese regime has weaponized racism by conflating criticisms of the CCP with discrimination against Chinese people.

Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who has exposed horrific human rights abuses committed by the CCP, said there’s a “new trend of weaponizing racism against scholarship on China.”

Zenz wrote in a Twitter post that hawkish CCP-run media The Global Times had accused him and Washington Post journalist Josh Rogin “of being responsible for anti-Asian racism in the U.S.” Both had been critical of the Chinese regime’s human rights abuses against Chinese citizens.

“Previously, some on social media accused scholars researching Chinese influence operations in the West of having ‘blood on their hands’ (a term also used against me in recent online attacks),” Zens wrote on Twitter.

Epoch Times Photo
A woman holds a cardboard sign with the names of victims of the Atlanta shootings, at a vigil for victims of Asian hate, in New York on March 19, 2021. (Chung I Ho/The Epoch Times)

“Weaponizing racism against select forms of scholarship on China serves to magnify existing divisions and promotes misinformation and misunderstanding rather than nuanced scholarly work. That is ultimately nearly as dangerous as racism itself.”

One March 12 article in Foreign Policy notes that “while Moscow attempted to pose as a leader for oppressed people worldwide, Beijing is instead attempting to portray itself as the head of the global Chinese diaspora.”

Reporter Melissa Chan recently shared the same article on her Twitter account and added her response.

“What resonated with me about this piece is that the Asian American writers recognize their objectification in both instances: anti-Asian hate from racists who see them as less human, and the Chinese Communist Party that uses ethnic Chinese as political pawns,” Chan wrote on March 16.

“Anyone who thinks we should only focus on one and not the other can’t seem to figure out it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. But that’s Twitter for you.”

Nathan Law, a prominent pro-democracy Hong Kong activist, shared a similar sentiment. In a March 18 Twitter post, he described the way in which the CCP propagates its smears as “disgusting,” referring to an article by The Global Times that accused The New York Times and Chan of “inciting hatred against Asian groups, due to their biased and groundless reports.”

“CCP depicts all Chinese as dictators’ followers, stigmatizing the people’s image more than anything else,” Law wrote. “Millions of Uyghurs are in concentration camps due to the CCP’s hatred towards religions and diversity. So hypocritical.”

The Spectator’s Melissa Chen denounced the propaganda narrative that critiquing the Chinese regime or its handling of the pandemic “must mean you’re a racist who downplays the racial motive of the shooter.”

“Surely you see the problem with linking political criticism of a nation with racism?” Chen wrote in a series of Twitter posts. “And surely you see who this benefits?

“This conflation is disingenuous and dangerous, and is basically a giant assist for the CCP’s psyops. Our media has abandoned even the pretense of truth-seeking and is retroactively fitting stories into pre-conceived frameworks.”

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