By Tandy Lau
There’s no “All Lives Matter” counterpart to the Stop Asian Hate movement, but right-wing talking heads like Tucker Carlson and Andrew Sullivan are part of a larger movement that is fomenting a blame-game against Black Americans for the uptick of racist harassment and violence against Asian Americans after the first confirmed COVID-19 infection in Wuhan, China about three years ago.
Dr. Janelle Wong, a co-director of the nonprofit AAPI Data and Asian American studies professor at the University of Maryland, says that a majority of known attackers are white despite the overrepresentation of Black perpetrators by the news.
“The most recent data I could find on the race of perpetrators in hate crimes showed that 75% of the perpetrators of violent anti-Asian hate crimes were white,” said Wong. “And that was in sharp contrast to what was being reported in the mainstream media…(O)ne of the things that also occurred after I published those statistics—there were a lot of people who were spending a lot of time trying to ‘prove’ to me that the perpetrators were, in fact, Black and not white, when it came to violent anti-Asian hate crimes.”
When it comes to policy — namely, affirmative action — Asian Americans have been increasingly used as a wedge to stoke infighting among communities of color, according to the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. And there’s plenty of money behind it.
Citizens for Sanity and American First Legal—two nonprofits aligned with former Trump administration advisor Stephen Miller—spent millions of dollars on ads and outreach mailers promoting narratives falsely accusing the “left” of ignoring anti-Asian violence and promoting Asian American-Pacific Islander (AAPI) exclusion through Critical Race Theory and diversity initiatives.
“Black on Asian” Violence Trope Arrives in the Big Apple
With the COVID-19 pandemic came the scapegoating of not only Chinese-Americans, but almost the entire community after the first known case of the novel coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China, during winter of 2019. Then former president Donald Trump called the disease the “China Virus” and soon Asian Americans across the nation reported experiencing racism, from passing comments or being coughed on to outright harassment and violence.
There was a clear and dramatic increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans after the COVID-19 pandemic here in New York City. Just one anti-Asian hate crime was tallied by the NYPD in 2019. In 2020, there were 28 and in 2021, there were 133. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office reported that 44 of its 122 outstanding hate crime cases involve anti-Asian incidents as of January 6 this year—by far the highest of any group.
When two Asian American women — Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee — were brutally and senselessly murdered last year by unhoused Black New Yorkers, a “Black on Asian” crime trope exploded in AAPI social media spaces thanks to seeds previously planted by the 2021 murder of 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vicha Ratanapakdee. And since then, it’s never really gone away.
A disinformation researcher from Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) — who wishes to remain anonymous due to safety concerns — told the AmNews that viral videos and posts depicting harassment and violence against Asian Americans are frequently shared through pan-Asian social media channels like multi-platform website Asian Dawn and Reddit.com community r/AznIdentity.
She said these spaces often see themselves as serving the Asian American community, given the historic underrepresentation of AAPI issues in “mainstream” media.
“It often starts with just a broad description, and then they quickly isolate the salient factors to them that are the most important,” said the AAJC researcher. “We’ll often see headlines like, ‘Oh, another instance of Black on Asian crime,’ ‘Another Black attacker’—[those] sorts of very misleading and racist and stereotypical messaging and rhetoric.”
For example, a stabbing at a Utica high school last fall quickly proliferated through social media as a “Black on Asian” crime despite the initial attempts by local news to keep the students’ identities anonymous because the perpetrator was a minor. A Twitter video of the incident went viral and soon, far-right personalities like Andy Ngoshared the post to their online audiences. Asian Dawn soon reported the story under the headline “Asian Student Hospitalized After Getting Stabbed by Black Student,” in addition to resharing the video to its 18,000 Twitter followers. Comments were often openly anti-Black, ranging from citing specious crime statistics to overt racism.
Another factor fueling the finger-pointing game is the often-impossible distinction between targeted anti-Asian violence and violence that happens to be against Americans of Asian descent, opening the door for “concern trolling.” A hate crime conviction usually serves as a veritable benchmark, but that burden of proof is significantly higher than for the average crime.
“The hate crime statute requires us to prove that the act was taken in substantial part because of someone’s age, race, gender, and the other things enumerated in the statute,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told the AmNews in an interview. “If someone commits a million-dollar larceny from their employer and they do it because they want to take a trip to Cancun, we may mention that as part of its background, but why they took the money is not an element.”
Without evidence of overt racist language or gestures, Bragg said the D.A. Office’s Hate Crimes Unit is forced to work harder to prove an incident is anti-Asian, such as combing through the perpetrator’s social media and checking their MetroCard history to see if they previously went to the neighborhood where the investigated incident occurred—especially in enclaves with significant AAPI populations. And even when anti-Asian slurs are allegedly hurled, Bragg’s office isn’t always successful in pursuing hate crime charges, as in the conviction of laundromat stabber Dwight Williams.
The Atlanta Spa Shootings incident on March 16, 2021, perpetrated by a young white man, is widely regarded as the watershed moment for the Stop Asian Hate movement. But the act of mass murder wasn’t considered racially motivated to the conservative media personalities Sullivan and Carlson due to the absence of hate speech, even though six of the eight people killed were Asian women.
While social media is the most prominent vehicle for potentially problematic narratives, online interconnectivity is a modern triumph for the Asian diaspora. Inevitably, some groups take a turn toward jingoism, especially over historical challenges Asians face in the western world. To be clear, many of these online groups and pages don’t see themselves as anti-Black or even anti-progressive. These groups often even boast anti-racist language.
“It’s a new racial formation,” said Wong. “They don’t look like white supremacists. They don’t align with the Republican Party, necessarily. It’s a new kind of political and racial formation, where we see a kind of racial conservatism that centers the Asian American community and experience that is Democratic in party I.D.
“This non-white group is racially conservative on some issues, but is super-progressive on the environment or healthcare—it’s just a different way to be anti-Black.”
Yet, arguably the most frequent targets by this “new racial formation” are Asian Americans themselves—and usually women. Wong boasts an entire folder of hate mail from those who consider her a “race traitor.” Often the issue stems from dating, which is attributed to a historic “desexualization” of Asian men. Sometimes, they lash out against Asian women dating white men. Other times, they extend support to Black women, who statistically face similar statistical disadvantages with online dating.
The /r/aznidentity Identity Crisis
Slate reported that users from Asian-centric Reddit community r/aznidentity conducted a targeted harassment campaign against a Yale student in 2020 after she went viral for denouncing anti-Black racism by her community. The group seemed to clean up its act a year after the story was published in 2021—currently, posts on crime and critiques of other communities of color are banned and assumed “meant by white trolls to divide and conquer.”
Reddit user u/Arcterex—one of the community’s moderators—told the Amsterdam News the decision stems directly from the bad actors and not pressure from the Slate piece, which they criticized as an attempt to “vilify” the subreddit.
“Historically, Asian Americans have been seen as passive—not the type to organize, fight back, to call out racism and be aggressive in holding racists accountable,” they wrote by email. “u/aznIdentity breaks that mold. Consequently, we attract white racists who troll our Asian community and this includes making posts posing as Asians insulting other racial communities. We used to have an open policy of allowing anyone to make posts on our subreddit; but due to racist trolling, all posts must now be approved by our moderators.”
When asked what happens when an earnest Asian American user echoes the same divisive language as the white trolls, u/Arcterex simply arguef that the group isn’t racist, especially to non-white groups. They added that “constructive criticism” addressing anti-Asian racism from non-white groups by verified users is permitted.
But not too long ago, such users argued in a Black-on-Asian crime post that the lives of many Black victims of police violence were worth less than Michelle Go’s, to the tune of 350-plus “upvotes,” Reddit’s version of likes. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Go’s father Justin was unsure if her killer had any racial motivation. White trolls or not, such posts seem drastically reduced, if not eliminated, on r/aznidentity today.
u/Arcterex sees the “new racial formation” as self-sufficiency, arguing that Asian Americans cannot depend on either the Democratic or Republican party to advocate for them—a candidate’s support is levied or withheld based on their support for AAPI issues, rather than political affiliation. They believe such a stance is what draws both harassment from right-wing trolls and derision from “white liberal” media like Slate, although the story’s author is Asian American and does not currently work at the publication.
WeChat’s Role in the Chinese Community
But as this “new racial formation” materializes in Asian American spaces, Chinese language social media platforms are also contending with similar themes—most notably on WeChat, the world’s largest standalone mobile app. Jinxia Niu, who manages the Chinese Digital Engagement Project for Chinese for Affirmative Action(CAA) says anti-Black narratives are frequently found in conversations about public safety, affirmative action, and reparations. She created Chinese language fact-checking boards and independent websites to challenge anti-Black disinformation.
“What they’re referring to is, maybe there [are] indeed, two or three cases on news reporting that Black Americans were involved in the attacks,” said Niu. “Some of the cases are in New York, some are in San Francisco. They were picking out these two or three attacks in the media and generaliz[ing] it or exaggerat[ing] it.”
Many of these narratives stem from a misperceived “privilege” Black Americans supposedly receive through affirmative action, reparations, and media coverage as victims of violent attacks, added Niu. It’s even seen through the official Mandarin term for “Black Lives Matter”: hēi mìng guì, which more closely translates to “Black lives are expensive” or “Black lives are superior.”
Re-Affirming Affirmative Action
Still, Niu stressed that most Chinese Americans do not participate in this online behavior. She believes it is almost always a vocal minority, which is best illustrated by the ongoing struggle over affirmative action. Today, Asian Americans are often at the forefront of these debates, with the researchers specifically pointing out lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill designed by conservative tactician Edward Blum and his Students for Fair Admissions organization. The Supreme Court soon will hear his seventh and eighth attempts to essentially try to deem affirmative action as unconstitutional.
Yet Asian American voters overwhelmingly support affirmative action, according to Wong. AAPI Data researchers began polling on the issue in 2012 and most recently found 69% of Asian American voters favor affirmative action programs “designed to help Black people, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education.”
To Blum, affirmative action is too abstract a concept to quantify support for—by email, he told the Amsterdam News that the term “means different things to different people.” He argued that, alternatively, race as a factor in admissions and employment “is not a fuzzy concept to measure.”
Blum pointed to countering data from a pair of Pew Research surveys finding a majority of all Americans, including those identifying as Black or Asian, generally oppose universities factoring race into their admissions processes. Unlike AAPI Data’s poll, the participants included non-voters and were not directly asked about affirmative action. Instead, they were asked about a list of college admissions factors and whether those should be considered major, minor, or non-factor. Participants could also choose not to answer.
Bridging the Divide
While Korean Americans are the most likely to support affirmative action, according to AAPI Data, the most prominent historical conflicts between Asian and Black Americans involve Korean Americans. The Los Angeles Koreatown was in rubble after the 1992 Rodney King protests and disproportionately damaged due to the killing of Black teenager Latasha Harlins by Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du in the previous year. Wong said the community’s overwhelming support for affirmative action today, designed to help Black people, is no coincidence.
“We see Korean Americans [are] very supportive, more so than other groups that are also supportive,” she said. “But it is striking, and it has to do [with] post-1992, after the Rodney King beating and the interracial tensions that arose, there was a ton of work done by community organizers to try to create more solidarity between Black [and] Korean Americans.”
Today, the bridge-building continues—albeit largely offline. Wong mentioned work between CAA and the nonprofit Equal Justice Society (EJS), which campaigned together for the rejected Prop 16 that tried to bring affirmative action back to the “Golden State.” She specifically credited EJS’s founder and outgoing president Eva Paterson—a then-20-year-old Black college student who famously debated ex-U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew—as a key player in building solidarity between the groups.
Paterson’s successor, Lisa Holder, says a rising tide lifts all boats. “I will give reparations as an example of a movement that is established to redress the harm that has been done to African Americans over the last 400 years,” said Holder. “On the surface, [it] may seem very specific to Black people. But when you look at reparations more broadly, the concept of reparations is a multicultural concept.
“It is a concept that has been leveraged by the Japanese American community with the support of the African American community, to address and right some of the wrongs that have been done to the Asian American community—specifically, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided for Japanese American reparations and which was heavily supported by African American legislators.”
Such lawmakers include then-California Representative Ron Dellums, who recalled how his childhood neighbor—and friend—was removed from their home.
“It wasn’t just Japanese Americans who felt the emotion, because they lived in the total context of community and I was one of the people who lived in [such a] community,” he said in his floor speech.
Holder added that such values of equity and inclusion are universal across racial lines, and must be the basis of any successful multiracial coalition. Just as most Asian Americans are outraged about the legacy of slavery, many Black Americans were repulsed by the World War II-era internment of Japanese Americans. From there, bridges can be built.
While many choose this advocacy work, others are chosen. Esther Lee calls herself an “accidental activist” after she was spit on and called “a carrier” while riding the New York City subway. That case is best known for leading to Mayor Eric Adams’s reassignment of NYPD Hate Crimes Taskforce head Jessica Corey after the unit allegedly downplayed Lee’s incident report (Corey is now accusing Adams and Councilmember Julie Won of defamation).
Lee—who recorded the incident—often found herself thrust into speaking out against anti-Asian violence here in New York City. But she soon noticed her narratives were hijacked by those who fixated on her attacker’s race in the video.
“I would say [around] 90% of the messages were [supportive], but you have that small sliver of people who feel safe in a platform like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, because it’s anonymous, right?” said Lee. “You can come up with fake social media accounts, you don’t have to put out your name, and you can write anything you want, and who’s gonna come after you?
“That anonymity is what emboldened people to say certain things, and it really shows the true colors of some within our own community that start calling this [a] ‘Black on Asian hate crime.’”
She said she’s still processing what happened and what caused it. Lee maintained she’s typically not one to march or lead rallies. Yet she’s now not only an “accidental activist” against anti-Asian violence in New York City, but also finds herself doing the difficult work of dispelling anti-Blackness stemming from those imposing their own theories on the perpetrator’s motivations. Ultimately, Lee herself doesn’t even fully understand why the 63-year-old Bronx man approached her on that fateful day.
“There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m still unpacking it,” she said. “I still don’t know, and I’m still discovering it. But one thing that I do to keep in check for myself is to be very careful not to fall into the trap of the ‘Black on Asian’ narrative.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.