A Psychologist's Take on anti-Asian Hate Crimes
As a clinical psychologist and multi-racial Asian woman, I have noticed continued misguided statements about the perpetrators of anti-Asian hate crimes having a history of mental illness. These reflect a longstanding and misguided belief in a strong link between violence and mental health. But as a 2011 article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter noted, extensive research has not supported the widely held public perception of a link between violence and mental illness. People with mental illness are actually much more likely to be the victims than perpetrators of violence (Stuart, 2003; Teplin et al., 2005). While there is a small subset of individuals with psychiatric disorders who have a higher risk for violence, this is not a key trait among perpetrators of violent crimes (Harvard Mental Health, 2011). Mental illness alone has not been found to be an independent predictor of violence (Elbogen & Johnson, 2009). By contrast, alcohol and substance use are significant predictors of violence, regardless of whether the individual has a mental illness (Elbogen & Johnson, 2009; Stuart, 2003), and research indicates that the “strongest predictor of violence is not major mental illness but a past history of violence” (Elbogen & Johnson, 2009). These findings were established well over a decade ago.
Even perpetrators of violence have deployed this false narrative: the man responsible for the anti-Asian homicides in Atlanta this year attributed his actions to a “sex addiction.” The DSM-5 (the diagnostic handbook and authoritative guide in the U.S. and many other countries on psychiatric diagnoses) has no such diagnosis. Not only are we perpetuating and heaping further stigmatization upon people with mental illness, we’re also not focusing on perpetrator characteristics that could actually be a useful focus in understanding and deterring these acts of violence.
Furthermore, the invoking of mental illness is often racially coded. When a violent perpetrator is not white, they are frequently dehumanized by being depicted as barbaric, animal, criminal, or committing acts of terrorism. The speculation or diagnosis of mental illness is generally reserved for violent white perpetrators, which humanizes white violence and creates empathy. A victimized (and possibly exculpatory) narrative of the white perpetrator can even emerge, as when a White police captain on the force, commenting on the perpetrator of the Atlanta homicides, said: “He was pretty much fed up and at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him.” But as for the suffering or humanity of the true victims of the Atlanta shootings? A resounding silence.
There is a tripling effect here in selectively discussing mental illness: it falsely associates violence with mental illness, and racially codes mental illness for violent White perpetrators, while simultaneously criminalizing and dehumanizing Black and Brown violent perpetrators.
If we do want to consider the individual psychology of violence, a different picture emerges, and not one tied to mental illness. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, asserts that individual violence is tied to an individual’s distorted social perceptions and beliefs, resulting in one blaming others for their problems (Beck, 1999). Relatedly, it has been hypothesized that individual violence may be an act in response to a perception of injustice or being disadvantaged or wronged, and may result in feelings of fear, anger, and resentment (Kaufman, 2001; Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2017; Suny, 2004; Peterson, 2002).
This makes me wonder who has the power and privilege to feel emboldened to express their fear and rage through violent, racially motivated attacks against Asians and Asian Americans. In public. In broad daylight. The answer I find? White, cisgender, heterosexual men. This is by no means a knock on all White men. My father is one. And yes, there are examples of anti-Asian crimes committed by White women and men of color. This is about a pattern of race and gender among too many perpetrators of anti-Asian hate crimes for us not to be talking about this more explicitly. We have repeatedly seen principally White men exhibiting what the research on violence has highlighted: violent reactions to feeling threatened, expressing fear for our country’s future, and directing anger, resentment, and blame at women and/or people of color for their own struggles and the structural problems of society. I would also add, a feeling of entitlement and impunity to act accordingly. Truly disenfranchised groups generally don’t have the power and audacity to “act out” in these ways.
And yet naming white racialized violence appears to be taboo. It is painfully and palpably absent from so many of the liberal mainstream articles covering anti-Asian hate crimes. Why have we largely avoided directly naming a White male perpetrator as such when these characteristics are more statistically and historically tied to racial violence than any other group? Who are we protecting by not acknowledging White perpetrators? How is this customary even among many so-called liberal media outlets?
I have been hearing growing (mis)perceptions that it is Black rather than White men who are committing most of the anti-Asian violence. While there have been Black perpetrators of anti-Asian violence, it appears that the media is magnifying and repeatedly circulating several instances of Black anti-Asian violence, despite a lack of evidence that they comprise a large portion of attacks. This is a continuation of the longstanding discriminatory and racist history in the media that engages in selective reporting by hyper-visualizing and overrepresenting Black and Brown violence compared to White violence (Dixon, Weeks, & Smith, 2019; Entman & Rojecki, 2001; Gilliam et al., 1996; Klein & Naccarato, 2003).
Asians and Asian-Americans do have higher rates of non-white violence committed against them than do other communities of color (Zhang, Zhang, & Benton, 2021). However, this finding differs from overall rates of perpetrator violence by race. A study published this year, using data from a 23-year period, found that White people have committed 74.5% of anti-Asian crimes while people of color have committed 25.5% of these crimes (Zhang, Zhang, & Benton, 2021). While this data did not include the period of Trump’s presidency nor the coronavirus, it seems rather dubious that these statistics would dramatically invert over just the past few years given a) Trump’s messaging of fear mongering to White men, including the repeated sanctioning of hate and violence against people of color and women, and b) Trump’s repeated terming and blaming of the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus.” Research has also shown that violence against Asians and Asian-Americans tends to occur in predominantly white areas (Green, et al. 1998). Let us also not forget that our fellow Black and Brown Americans experience dramatically high incidents of hate crimes byprimarily white perpetrators (Zhang, Zhang, & Benton, 2021). The common thread, again, is white violence.
When the focus has shifted to violent White men, arguments have been made, in the defense of White men, that the rates of hate crimes by perpetrator race match the racial demographics in our country. Data from the US Census Bureau does support this (2019). Presumably the implication by citing this statistic is to urge us to stop pointing the finger at White men for hate crimes. But because White men comprise a much larger portion of the population than Black and Brown men, estimates of white anti-Asian violence are nearly three times that of black and brown anti-Asian violence (Zhang, Zhang, & Benton, 2021). Numerically and quantitatively, White men overridingly remain the key dangerous demographic.
Another argument I have heard put forth is that discussing race gives undue attention to the perpetrator. No. The undue focus is discussing a perpetrator’s “sex addiction.” The undue focus is explaining that a perpetrator was “having a bad day.” And when reported, the liberal media has repeatedly lacked a critical analysis of these statements. I keep waiting and wanting to hear a follow up acknowledgement on why the quoted comment is problematic – or even the fact that it is problematic. Intentional or not, this too, feels like a palpable silence.
In falsely holding up mental illness and Black men to explain our catastrophe of anti-Asian violence, we skirt naming white supremacy as the problem. I think we need to start using this term more often, especially in these contexts. White supremacy is a useful term because it is not only the core issue in anti-Asian hate crimes, but it also encompasses many of other key issues at play, such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Even when people of color are committing acts of anti-Asian violence, this too is part of white supremacy and white nationalism, as Asian-American communities have been pitted against other communities of color (particularly Black communities), through the weaponized myth of the “model minority.” I also think we need to become more comfortable naming a White male perpetrator a White male perpetrator. For some, calling attention to the race of a White perpetrator has become equated with vilification, when all I am looking for is accountability. My own field of psychology struggles with the same white cultural issue of being indirect when discussing racism and sexism, often avoiding these words and instead using terms like “intergroup bias” and “stereotypes.”
In sum, the horrific and disturbingly increasing acts of anti-Asian violence we have been witnessing are not about mental illness. And they are not about Black men. White supremacy is our affliction.
I love this image and message. How sad and problematic that it is refreshing to see the face of an Asian woman looking angry. If you like this, check out Jeff Yang and Phil Yu's longstanding blog and podcast, Angry Asian Man.
This image says it all
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2. Dixon, T.L., Weeks, K.R., & Smith. M.A. (2019). Media constructions of culture, race, and ethnicity, Communication. Oxford University Press.
3. Elbogen, E.B., Johnson, S.C. (2009). The intricate link between violence and mental disorder: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 66(2), 152-161. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/210191
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7. Kaufman, S.J. (2001). Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War. Cornell University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt1tm7gbw
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11. Miceli, M. & Castelfranchi, C. (2017). Anger and its cousins. International Society for Research on Emotion, 11(1), 13-26.
12. Suny, R. G. (2004). Why We Hate You: The Passions of National Identity and Ethnic Violence. UC Berkeley: Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3pv4g8zf - author
13. Teplin, A.L., McLelland, G.M., Abram, K.M., & Weiner, D.A. (2005). Crime victimization in adults with mental illness. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 62, 911-921.
14. US Census Bureau, Quick Facts Population Estimates. (2019).
15. Zhang, Y., Zhang, L., & Benton, F. (2021). Hate Crimes against Asian Americans. Am J Crim Justice. 1(7), 1-21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7790522/