Morning Belz, March 22
Got a few responses to Friday’s letter about my handful of interviews with Asian-Americans, and the ensuing discussion raised the question of the data on hate crimes against Asians in this country. Are they really on the rise?
The answer is yes, almost certainly, but mostly not because of the data. Asian-Americans are saying, repeatedly, that they feel they are under siege. We have to trust that, because the data isn’t much help on this topic, outside of a single set of numbers from the NYPD. At least not yet.
So let’s look at the data. The headline from last week, in the New York Times, among others, came from Stop AAPI Hate, an initiative of the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University. The initiative received 3,795 reports of hate incidents between March 19, 2020 and Feb. 28, 2021. They use the word “incident” and not “crime” since 90% of what’s reported to them doesn’t fit the definition of a crime. (By the way, the organization was careful to say we do not yet know whether the horrific shootings at the Atlanta-area spas were motivated by hate.)
Stop AAPI Hate is also careful to emphasize that the true number of hate incidents in America is much higher than what’s been reported, since an immeasurable number of incidents happen without ever formally being reported. That’s gotta be true, both today and in the past. Perhaps moreso in the past, when an older generation that preferred getting along over rocking the boat just let casual racism slide. That makes the numbers tricky. If people were less likely to report incidents a decade or two ago, then a higher number of reports today may not indicate an actual increase in hate.
The other tricky thing about these numbers is that they’re not longitudinal. Stop AAPI Hate is a new organization, so it doesn’t have data for the 12 months previous to the pandemic, or the 12 months previous to that, and so on. So it’s impossible to use those numbers to say anything about a trend in anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. The same goes for this United Nations report in August that said there had been 1,800 incidents in an eight-week period in the spring of 2020.
The data we do have over time is from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, and it’s not adequate to the job. The data shows 150 anti-Asian or Pacific Islander incidents in 2010, and 156 such incidents ten years later in 2019. In absolute terms these numbers are tiny, and underreporting is almost certainly a problem, but the trend wasn’t markedly upward before the pandemic. There’s analysis of other available data here, in the American Journal of Criminal Justice in January. It shows an increase in violent crime against Asian-Americans in New York City over the past decade (the brazen attacks on elderly Asian folks in the Bay Area square with this). That trend may be the most troubling one, since it’s not explicitly motivated by hate but is difficult to disentangle from it.
So there you have all the data that’s pretty inconclusive.
Now for the data that looks like it shows a rise in anti-Asian hate. The best evidence comes from the New York City Police Department, which reported to the Queens Chronicle a rise in hate incidents against Asian-Americans in New York from 1 in 2019, to 20 in 2020. I highly doubt there was only one incident of hate against an Asian-American in all of New York in 2019, but that rise is striking if you think of reports as the tip of the iceberg (which, it seems to me, you should), and it was reported as such at the link, with the headline highlighting a “1,900 percent increase” in hate crimes against Asians.
A meticulous approach to the data wouldn’t come away with the conclusion that we’re seeing an alarming rise in anti-Asian racism, but, combine those NYPD numbers with the (1) horrible (2) examples of violence we’ve seen against Asian-Americans in California, and it would be pretty head-in-the-sand to deny that we’re seeing an increase in anti-Asian sentiment in America. (Not to mention, the U.S. has a history of shocking racism toward Asian-Americans, which this thread lays out.)
And the reports of hate collected by Stop AAPI Hate in the past year are very discouraging to read. They’re infuriating, meaningful and important anecdotes. Anecdotes are meaningful! Data is too, but it’s often far more limited than we like to admit, on all kinds of topics, including the unemployment rate, job growth by industry, and population numbers. That’s me grinding my axe. We pretend data tells us things when it doesn’t. Long live the human anecdote. I’ll be out trying to get more anecdotes from Asian-Americans in the Chattanooga area this afternoon.
I’ve taken too long to finish this newsletter so no links today. I promise tomorrow I’ll shut up and post the links.
“You know what I want to think of myself? As a human being. Because, I mean I don't want to be like ‘As Confucius say,’ but under the sky, under the heavens there is but one family. It just so happens man that people are different.” — Bruce Lee, 1971
About: I was a newspaper reporter for 14 years, most recently at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I explained why my family left Minneapolis here. Now we live just outside Chattanooga and I work on Scuffed News, a project that either succeeds by July or will have to be abandoned. This is my newsletter. Please share it with anyone you think might enjoy it. And please consider supporting this work with your money on Patreon.