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The Press and Violence against Asian-Americans 

It seems as though they will do anything to avoid actually backing approaches that would begin to remedy these problems, all of which start with taking a harder-line on those who routinely commit violent crimes.”

Naming Names

In May of 2018, Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that had taken place in Florida three months prior, authored an op-ed—co-written with Tyler Grant—arguing that when news outlets report on mass casualty shootings, they should refrain from naming or showing the likeness of the perpetrator. Asserting that a desire for notoriety was one of the primary motivators of mass shooters, the authors write, “…it’s imperative to snuff out the sinister aspirations of potential mass shooters by refusing to give perpetrators the notoriety and fame they seek.” In turn, the hope was that by removing this pathway to fame (and, thus, the concomitant sense of immortality), would-be mass shooters would think twice before acting, knowing that such acts of violence would no longer result in the world knowing their names. 

Kashuv’s op-ed was hardly the first endorsement of this idea (it was being floated at least as early as 2012), and, by 2019, as Kelly McBride noted in a post on the Poynter Institute’s website, this had become basically the norm for news organizations. Commenting on the coverage of the May 31, 2019 mass shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 people dead, McBride indicated that “As [news organizations] told the story of the 12 murders, the vast majority of newspapers and TV stations covering the tragedy embraced the practice of not using the shooter’s name unless it was absolutely necessary.” (This was true even of the above linked AP story released on the day of the incident.) McBride also pointed to this change in practice as evidence of the news industry’s alleged growing adaptability: “For an industry that is often criticized for being slow to change, this development is remarkable.” However, by the time of the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16th of this year, McBride seemed to have changed her tune. It had turned out, after all, that reducing the amount of coverage devoted to perpetrators was not the panacea that Kashuv and others had hoped it would be; mass casualty shootings were still taking place, and McBride was now outlining—on March 25th of this year—criteria news outlets should follow when determining “when a gunman should be named.” So much for a relatively minor change in reporting protocols putting an end to humanity’s oldest vice: a predilection for violence. 

Further, this policy of diverting focus away from the perpetrators of crimes—like many untested changes in how things are done—produced a set of unintended consequences, in addition to predictably failing to put an end to gun violence. And I might also pause briefly to suggest that it is a betrayal of journalistic responsibility to begin making utilitarian calculuses such as with the one championed by Kashuv and a 2019 era McBride, rather than remaining committed to journalism’s fundamental purpose of providing as accurate and complete of information as is possible. (It also, in the process, betrays the profession’s staggering hubris, as journalism again reveals its unofficial mantra to be “I alone can fix this.”) In any event, this now-commonplace tendency of diverting focus away from the unique facts concerning a given perpetrator would be paired with the news media’s worst habit (i.e. jumping to conclusions), and this created a flurry of premature judgements in the aftermath of the March shooting in Atlanta. 

Determining a perpetrator’s intent can be a complicated process, and, even in the cases where it might be more straightforward, intent cannot be known with any degree of certainty within just minutes or hours of the initial report that a shooting has taken place. Yet this did not stop the rush to judgement; immediately upon learning that the victims of the shooting were Asian-Americans, commentators determined (and wrote and tweeted and posted) that the alleged perpetrator, Robert Aaron Long, must have had racial animus on his mind, like say Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. (Roof would later confess that he had hoped the shooting would trigger a race war, and Roof’s victims were targeted specifically because of their race.)

Underpinning Sullivan’s point is that trials by jury are always preferable to trials by journalists and that speculation ought not replace earnest engagement with the particular facts of a case. 

The issue, however, was that Long—in interviews with law enforcement shortly after his arrest—indicated that he targeted the spa parlors “for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex.” Describing the apparent motive, Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office said that “It’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate…He said it was not racially motivated.” All of this threw into doubt the knee-jerk assumption that the victims’ ethnicity was essential to—rather than incidental to—their having been targeted by the perpetrator. In light of this revelation, commentators such as Andrew Sullivan asked, “If and when the NYT’s and WaPo’s hate-crime narrative about the Atlanta bombings [sic] collapses as a trial is held, do you think they will acknowledge it? Me neither.” Underpinning Sullivan’s point is that trials by jury are always preferable to trials by journalists and that speculation ought not replace earnest engagement with the particular facts of a case. 

The trial is not yet upon us; perhaps, it will emerge that the ethnicity of the victims did play a part in the suspect’s thinking or at least that it was a contributing factor. After all, many things in life, including violent crimes, are overdetermined. However, as it stands now, it appears that the intent stemmed from religiously-motivated guilt about sex and not racial animus. (With that said, we have recently learned that—after initial uncertainty—the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office will also seek to persuade the jury that Long’s acts also constituted a hate crime, “which carries an additional penalty” under Georgia law.) Yet, it is still likely that this shooting just so happened to coincide with an increase in crimes with Asian-American victims in the United States, an increase which appears to have begun its ascent as early as 2015 in Los Angeles and will be explored in detail later. In the meantime, however, at least one reality has become clear: the “Let’s not talk about the suspect—only the victim(s)” solution has so far caused its own set of problems. 

Lurking Variables

While still on the subject of mass shootings and other high-profile acts of violence—and this also includes crimes targeting well-known political or entertainment figures—it is worth noting that perpetrators’ mental well-being (or lack thereof) tends to feature prominently. In the case of Long, Will Carless reporting at USA Today writes, “At one point, [Tyler] Bayless [Long’s former roommate] said Long gave him a knife to take care of because he feared he would harm himself with it.” Although we shall wait for conclusive reports about the suspect’s mental health, as Jeffrey Flier, former Dean of the Harvard Medical School, put it last month, “People who commit mass murders and politically motivated murders frequently (not always) suffer from serious mental illness. The press needs more consistent criteria for identifying this as an apparent cause, as opposed to alternative narratives that fit the story of the moment.”  

Jared Lee Loughner, who shot then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and fatally gunned down six others in 2011, would be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia following his arrest and was initially determined incompetent to stand trial. John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan and in the process severely injured Press Secretary James Brady, suffered from mental illness, with his oft-discussed obsession with Jodie Foster being one notable manifestation. The mental health variable was also at play with Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon in 1980. Even as far back as 1881, Charles J. Guiteau, the man who shot President James Garfield ostensibly in retaliation for being passed over for a job appointment, was hardly the posterboy for mental equanimity prior to the attack. More than a half-decade before Guiteau shot the President, his father believed his son to be possessed by the devil; Guiteau threatened his sister with an ax; and he believed that—like the Apostle Paul—he had been sent on a divine mission “to preach the Gospel.”

It is perhaps for this reason that journalist Melissa Chan weighed in this April by writing, “My hunch is that mental healthcare is to gun violence as to what nuclear energy is to climate change. It’s what we need to do given where we are and the problem we want to solve, but there’s almost no political will to do it.” With this said, though, a distinction ought to be drawn between those perpetrating high-profile acts of violence and those who might more opportunistically engage in the likely more impromptu acts of street violence that have, unfortunately, led to so many people in recent months, including Asian-Americans, being harmed. However, in the view of Inspector Tommy Ng, commander of the New York City Police Department’s Asian Hate Crimes Task Force, mental illness features as a “common denominator” in many of these attacks. 

So to conclude our discussion of Long, it is worth noting that some actions can be read symbolically (i.e. how many commentators and news anchors chose to interpret the Atlanta shootings), but said actions need not necessarily be read that way. Fortunately, when it comes to seeking to engage with and address violence against Asian-Americans, we have statistics on which to rely, and statistics tend to tell more complete—albeit less sensational—stories. 

As I mentioned previously, increasing numbers of violent crimes with Asian-Americans victims did not emerge overnight and actually predate the emergence of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). In October of 2016, NBC News reported that “hate crimes reported in Los Angeles County increased 24 percent in 2015, from 390 reports in 2014 to 483 last year” and that, according to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, “half of reported hate crimes were racially motivated, 25 percent were motivated by sexual orientation, and twenty percent were motivated by religion.” As for the latter point, it, thus, appears that—in some of the cases—another characteristic apart from (or in addition to) ethnicity may have predominated when it came to motivation. 

This increase in crimes against Asian-Americans in Los Angeles mirrored an overall increase in the amount of crime in California from 2014 to 2015, with The Los Angeles Times reporting that violent crime in the state increased 10% overall during the year, with a 9.7% uptick in homicides, robbery and aggravated assault increasing by 8%, and hate crimes experiencing a 10.4% leap. This data from California provides further corroboration for those who see the recent uptick in crimes against Asian-Americans as being inseparable from an increase in crime in general, as well as various policing and prosecutorial practices that have become popular in many urban areas, including in New York and Los Angeles, during the second half of the 2010s. 

In the days following May 5th of this year, news outlets the world-over digested the New York City Police Department’s release of citywide crime statistics for April, 2021. Homicides were up; rapes had surged by 52.8% from April 2020; and grand larceny had increased by 66.1% from the same period last year. Most dramatically, however, crimes against people of Asian descent had surged by 400% in 2021, as compared to 2020 levels. Many of these attacks, which were captured on video, were startling in their barbarity. Perhaps most infamous, at least to date, was the March 29th attack of a 65-year-old Filipina woman as she walked to church. The alleged perpetrator was Brandon Elliot. He was a parolee previously convicted of stabbing his own mother to death, and he was living in a New York hotel-turned-homeless shelter. He allegedly yelled anti-Asian slurs at the woman, told her “You don’t belong here,” and then “kicked her in the stomach, knocked her to the ground, [and] stomped on her face.” Two doormen at the building in front of where the attack took place did nothing to intervene, and one closed the building’s door as the victim lay injured in the aftermath of the attack. 

Other cases—in both New York and across the country—were equally violent. 

Accumulating Evidence 

On March 18th, Marc Mathieu allegedly “sucker punched” a 68-year-old Sri Lankan immigrant on the New York Subway’s 1 train. According to an eye witness, Mathieu yelled “You motherf—ing Asian” before initiating the assault. The New York Daily News, however, reports that “the Manhattan district attorney’s office has charged him with felony assault, but no hate crime,” with an Assistant District Attorney from the office being quoted as saying, “The people are further investigating if this case is a hate crime.” Mathieu’s family was quoted in that same The New York Daily News piece as saying that Mathieu suffered considerably from mental illness but had not shown a history of racial animus. Most importantly, however, Mathieu—like Brandon Elliot—had a significant criminal history. He had two prior convictions, including one for assault, had an open case in the Bronx “for which he was arrested the day before this incident—on charges of menacing and criminal mischief,” and “had another open case in Staten Island.” When facts such as these begin to emerge, this entire debate begins to look as much as about inept prosecutorial and parole practices as anything else. 

This is what Paul DiGiacomo, President of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, was sensing in his remarks about the March 29th attack on the 65-year-old Filipina woman: “When New York politicians and their parole board think it’s a good idea to release a murderer who killed his mother—they certainly can’t pretend to be surprised he brutally attacked a woman in Midtown.”

Three days subsequent to the 1 train attack, a 37-year-old Asian-American woman, with her young daughter in tow, was on her way to attend—of all things—a protest against anti-Asian violence when she was assaulted. The alleged perpetrator, Erick Deoliveira, reportedly asked her for the sign she was carrying. When she gave it to him, he began tearing it up and stuffing it into a garbage can. When she confronted him in response, Deoliveira allegedly punched her twice in the face. Unlike Mathieu, Deoliveira, who is homeless, has already been charged with a hate crime. Then, in another troubling incident, on May 24th, a 35-year-old Asian-American man was pushed onto the subway tracks in Queens

And on May 31st, a 55-year-old Asian woman walking in Manhattan’s Chinatown was struck in the face in an unprovoked attack and went unconscious upon hitting the pavement. The suspect, Alexander Wright, who can be heard on video telling bystanders to “be cool” in the aftermath of the attack—like Elliot and Deoliveira—was homeless; he also had been arrested 40 times previously. And even within a three week span prior to the attack, Wright had been arrested for an incident in January, where he allegedly threw hot coffee at two traffic officers in Midtown. He had also been arrested in a separate arson case just days before. 

In all of the above incidents, the alleged perpetrator was black, a far cry from media efforts to portray violence against Asian-Americans as being carried out exclusively by white supporters of former President Donald Trump, who were allegedly whipped into a frenzy by the former President’s habit of referring to COVID-19 as “the China virus.” In doing so, these writers and commentators also seemed to imply that Asian-Americans being subject to violence was somehow unprecedented in recent American history, as if the events in Koreatown, Los Angeles in 1992, for example, had never transpired. Even in Inspector Ng’s telling, though there indeed has been a recent surge in violence against Asian-Americans, the phenomenon is “absolutely not new,” and he relayed witnessing similar events upon first moving to the United States from Hong Kong. (Today, though, Asian-Americans may be more likely to report such incidents as compared to in years past, and this has been aided by the increasing ubiquity of smartphone cameras.) (1)

As was discussed earlier in the case of California, it is likely that the surge in crimes with Asian-American victims should be viewed as just one part of the increase in crime overall in many parts of the United States over the past couple of years. To this point, the year 2020 was the most violent one in the United States since 1995, with preliminary data suggesting over 20,000 homicides. Homicides in Portland, Oregon increased by 82% last year, and similarly dramatic leaps were also seen in cities from Minneapolis to Tucson, Arizona. As Jason Johnson narrated in a USA Today op-ed this April, crime has been dramatically surging in many American cities as police budgets decrease and officers retire at record rates. It gives me little pleasure to offer my own version of “I told you so”; in a Hill column published just over a week after the death of George Floyd and in response to the earliest flirtations with this idea of “defund the police,” it was not difficult to foresee what would happen should these remarkably short-sighted and irresponsible policies be pursued: Crime would surge, and cities would become all but unlivable. Sure enough, this has come to pass, and despite the news media’s best efforts to make us believe otherwise, rising crime rates affect people of each and every ethnic group.

To this point, one may recall in mid-June of last year, a 92-year-old woman being pushed to the ground in broad daylight in New York City. When the suspect, Rashid Brimmage, was later apprehended, it was determined that he had 101 prior arrests and was a convicted sex offender. Later that same month, a 78-year-old woman was struck in the head by an assailant—again in broad daylight. The suspect in this latter case had also had numerous previous run-ins with the law. In both of these cases, the victims were elderly, white women, and the suspects were black men. This same dynamic would play out again in New York in April of this year, with a 75-year-old white woman being hit in a random, unprovoked attack by a young black male suspect. To be clear, however, similar instances of violence in cities such as New York have affected victims of countless identities, from young Jewish men standing in Times Square to actors out for a morning stroll to black school children. Rising crime rates affect people of all backgrounds; in short, they affect human beings. 

With that said, however, the statistics and the anecdotes both do suggest that Asian-Americans—in recent months—have borne a particular brunt. We shall, though, continue to await better statistics—an objective that the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in May aims to address. I will also note that according to a 2018 Department of Justice report, there is marked racial diversity among those perpetrating crimes against Asian-Americans (White: 24.1%, Black: 27.5%; Hispanic: 7.0%; Asian: 24.1%; Other: 14.4%; Multiple Offenders of Various Races: 2.9%). (Note: These statistics refer to all crimes with an Asian-American victim and do not specifically address hate crimes. As it stands now, more precise statistics regarding hate crimes against Asian-Americans grouped by the race of the perpetrator do not appear to be available.)

“We’re Trying to Have a Society”

The key point is that when social order begins to break down, it is little wonder that those who might harbor anti-Asian sentiment due to frustrations over the pandemic—or, as they say in law, for any reason or no reason—would take the opportunity to act. And given various policies from no cash bail to lighter sentencing, the disincentives for failing to restrain oneself begin to erode. It is for this reason that a greater focus on pursuing anti-crime policies—across the board—is required. This would do more to spare more Asian-Americans from becoming crime victims than any reductive, made-for-Twitter slogan or CNN special ever could. I recall then-state senator David Shafer telling me when I interviewed him during his bid for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia in 2018, “…people behave themselves for one of two reasons: love of God, or fear of punishment. There’s not much that politicians can do about the former, but the latter is in our wheelhouse.”

The veneer of civilization, as it is often said, is thin. There will also be that share of the population that is predisposed to psychopathy, aggression, and various forms of antisocial behavior. This segment of society commits a disproportionate share of crimes, and, like Christ said of the poor, they will always be with us. One suspects that for some of these individuals—and perhaps Mathieu is one of them (according to news reporting, more precise psychiatric evaluations are still, in his case, forthcoming)—they may not have harbored long-standing animosity towards Asian-Americans. And the unfortunate reality is that as more and more attention is brought to this phenomenon of attacks against Asian-Americans, individuals such as these, knowing that this is now a trend, may succumb to copycat effects and join in.

Just as with the case of the two elderly white women targeted in June of 2020, some Asian-American victims may seem an easy target, whether on account of their age, stature, ability to speak English, or the perception that they are less integrated into American society and, thus, less likely to seek out law enforcement. (To be clear, this is not to advocate for less coverage of such violence in efforts to minimize copycat effects à la Kashuv and Grant’s suggestion about not naming perpetrators of mass shootings, which I previously criticized.)

But the fact remains that in the absence of consistently enforced laws, mayhem ensues. I recall a conversation to this effect when meeting with a number of high-ranking law enforcement officers over lunch in 2019. The conversation turned to a recent raid that was carried out to rescue children who were victims of human trafficking. As some of the officers aware of the particulars of the case recounted some of the details, many of which were nothing short of gruesome, I recall one person at the table saying something to the effect of, “Can you imagine who could do something like this?” In response, one of the officers remarked, “In my theological persuasion, we’re all capable of this.” No one had anything to say to that. 

Although most of us have numerous safeguards in place (or layers through which we would have to cut) before descending into the sort of barbarity that would lead one to become party to human trafficking—or, for that matter, to assault a person of Asian descent on the street—the point that officer was making is that society is fragile, and violence is rarely far away. As such, properly and consistently enforced laws remain the most reliable safeguard for a society on the whole. 

When Being Color-blind Only Goes So Far

Now, throughout this entire conversation, one might reasonably maintain some version of: “Why should we even care about the race of the victim? They are human beings, and harming any human being is a travesty, no matter his color, gender, or religion.” While this is undoubtedly true, committing to this interpretation may sidestep potential opportunities to minimize future attacks, particularly if it turns out that certain people are being specifically targeted based on ethnicity or other identifying characteristics. Furthermore, one does get the sense that targeting someone for violence based on his identity alone might arguably be more concerning than targeting him for another reason: such as just for the purpose of robbing him. Minorities within populations are considered vulnerable for a reason, and this is true whether it be the tiny remaining white minority in Zimbabwe, Coptic Christians in North Africa, or a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming. So, on one hand, the race of these crime victims ought not matter, but, in some ways, it does. Again, there is this ever-present duality in so many public policy debates, the sort of duality that allegedly caused a frustrated President Harry Truman to demand he be sent “a one-armed economist” for a change. 

Or, as P.F. Sloan—or, more famously, Barry McGuire—put it, “Ah, you may leave here for four days in space/But when you return, it’s the same old place.”

All the while, those in the media who naively (and predictably) sought to characterize acts of violence against Asian-Americans as being unique to the Trump era (and limited to a dynamic of a white perpetrators and Asian victims) dodge an honest engagement with the realities of human history. The story of humankind, after all, has been very much the story of violence and strife between different ethnic groups and nationalities. Yugoslavia made this clear in the early 1990s, in case anyone had been tempted to begin to think that Europe—let alone the entire world—had become the sort of post-historical utopia that many believed was attainable in the post-War period. Whether it is tensions between urban blacks and Korean immigrants in early 1990s Flatbush or between white rail workers and their Chinese counterparts in Wyoming in 1885 or between Kurds and Turks in the contemporary Middle East or even within Asian-American communities such as between Vietnamese and Laotian immigrants in Metro Atlanta, friction between ethnicities is not going anywhere, even if such discord is occasionally broken by much-welcome interregnums of calm. Or, as P.F. Sloan—or, more famously, Barry McGuire—put it, “Ah, you may leave here for four days in space/But when you return, it’s the same old place.” 

In a sense, the miracle is when everyone is—more or less—getting along, which had been relatively the case for the past couple of decades in the United States, following the fall in crime rates in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. Unfortunately, however, it is only once a city, state, or a society entire reaches a relative level of security and prosperity does it begin to condemn the very mechanisms that brought about said positive developments. It is then—and amid activist pushes—that we see district attorneys declining to prosecute known offenders, releasing from incarceration individuals with a clear propensity to reoffend, and demonstrating an astounding tolerance for crime even committed in broad daylight. (2)

Conclusion

All of this, for our purposes, is to say that a topic as multifaceted and complex as violence affecting Asian-Americans is not easily captured by instantaneous media rushes to judgement or reductive slogans. For this reason, if the press is going to be of use as the United States seeks to understand the causes of (and, thus, potential solutions to) this unfortunate trend, a more careful engagement with statistics and the numerous possible contributing factors will be urgently needed. Contributing factors worthy of further exploration include the aforementioned mental health component, misguided approaches to addressing  urban homelessness, and an honest engagement with the reality of race relations in urban areas and throughout the country. Instead, the national media has aimed to do what it does best: badly politicize events and further inflame existing divisions. (3) More than anything, though, it is hardly surprising that the general lawlessness that has characterized the past two or three years in the United States would ensnare Asian-Americans, not to mention other visible minorities such as with reports of a mounting wave of anti-Semitically-motivated violence. Instead of rejecting the sorts of policies that likely brought this all about, including weak-kneed district attorneys and woefully ill-advised new policing schemes, the press, the advertising industry, and corporations have chosen instead to retreat to slogans and mischaracterizations of basic reality. It seems as though they will do anything to avoid actually backing approaches that would begin to remedy these problems, all of which start with taking a harder-line on those who routinely commit violent crimes.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief of Merion West. 

The first two sections of this piece appeared originally as part of the author’s recurring column at MediaVillage. 

Endnotes

  1. I spoke with Charly Lyda, an Investigator at Cobb County District Attorney’s Office in Georgia, for an interview for this piece. Lyda, whose speciality is investigating gang crimes, discussed some of the unique challenges that can present when dealing with crimes in Asian-American communities, including a hesitancy historically to go to law enforcement in favor of preferring to handle matters within their own communities. 
  2. It is worth noting that there was, indeed, much truth to activists’ concern that the United States exhibited—at various points—a tendency to over-incarcerate. However, as is so often the case, an overcompensation has taken place, with the pendulum now swinging too far in the other direction.
  3. One can only imagine the media frenzy that would have ensued had, for instance, former NFL player Phillip Adams’ five murder victims in South Carolina in April been Asian, and he had been white. On a similar subject, one notes the relative dearth of media attention to the case of Justin Tyran Roberts, who traveled around Alabama and Georgia earlier this month intended specifically to kill white men. (Five people were injured during Roberts’ shooting spree.)

Erich J. Prince is the editor of Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on polarization in the United States Congress.

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