If your only source of information is progressive politicians and media, you might think that the Ku Klux Klan had invaded the Bay Area of California and New York City in order to commit crimes against Asian Americans.
Democratic lawmakers have been quick to blame former President Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric for the violence. A lengthy New York Times op-ed on the topic goes back further, positioning the latest spree of violence as an extension of white mobs in the 19th century brutally assaulting immigrants. The article carefully avoids identifying the ethnic background of the assailants in this year’s attacks.
In New York City, hundreds of people marched in a rally that called on the city to ‘unite against White nationalism’. A piece of art promoting the event demanded ‘justice for Vicha Ratanapakdee’. Ratanapakdee, who emigrated to the United States from Thailand, was brutally assaulted in San Francisco in late January. He died soon after.
But there is no evidence that Antoine Watson, the 19-year-old charged with killing Ratanapakdee, is a white nationalist. Watson isn’t white — he’s African American. In fact, almost all the suspects in the recent high-profile attacks against Asian Americans that are drawing public attention are from minority groups. There is no reason to think these attacks were predominantly inspired by the former president let alone any white supremacist ideology.
We don’t know how many of the attacks are even motivated by ethnic hatred to begin with. Yahya Muslim, an African-American man who is the center of one of the highest-profile attacks on Asian Americans, is reportedly homeless and mentally ill and prosecutors have yet to bring hate crime charges against him.
Over the past year, we’ve seen a huge spike in violent crime, particularly shootings and homicides. It’s possible that these crimes against Asian Americans are simply part of a larger crime wave that is making major American cities increasingly unsafe.
Some of these crimes, however, involved explicit invocations of anti-Asian hatred. One Seattle court filing from January I reviewed described Samuel Green shoving Asian American Kathryn Yeager ‘so hard it knocked the wind out of her’ while saying ‘Asians need to be put in [their] place.’ Again, Green is not a white supremacist. He is black.
It’s hard to know Green’s exact motivations, but we know that for years, Asians have been stereotyped as greedy entrepreneurs and interlopers for owning and operate businesses in inner-city communities. This stereotyping has created resentment that sometimes explodes into violence.
Even veterans of the civil-rights movement are not immune from this prejudice. Former UN ambassador Andrew Young demonstrated this reality during an interview in 2006.
That year Young was working as a representative for Walmart, a firm that was coming under fire for displacing mom-and-pop businesses. Asked about that allegation, Young went on a rant against those businesses that cost him his job. ‘Those are the people who are overcharging us — selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and retired to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough,’ he said. ‘First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs. Very few black folks own those stores.’
The antidote to this kind of resentment is not to ignore it or to just blame white people for it instead. Prejudice is part of human nature; there is no group of people who are categorically immune from it.
Instead, we should take heed of the words of Young’s former friend, the Revd Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During an event that took place 10 days before his assassination, King addressed the issue of black anti-Semitism. He explained that while some black people did come into contact with Jewish landlords who mistreated them, bigotry was the wrong response.
‘I think our responsibility in the black community is to make it very clear that we must never confuse some with all,’ he said. ‘We cannot substitute one tyranny for another, and for the black man to be struggling for justice and then turn around and be anti-Semitic is not only a very irrational course but a very immoral course.’
White people have no monopoly on hatred. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once told us, the line separating good and evil passes through ‘every human heart’.