With the COVID-19 pandemic sparking racist attacks on the Asian community this last year, many were quick to see an obvious racial motivation to this recent attack that resulted in the deaths of six people of Asian descent.
More than 24 hours after a man opened fire inside three massage parlors in the Atlanta, Georgia area, killing eight people and injuring others, an official motive for the shootings was unknown. Yet, for many Asian Americans, who have spent the last year facing escalating incidences of hate crimes and bigoted attacks, the killer’s targets sent an unmistakable message.
In recent years, minority groups have been the target of ideologically driven mass shootings, from the white supremacist shooting of a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 to the Islamic extremist killings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016.
With the COVID-19 pandemic sparking racist attacks on the Asian community this last year, many were quick to see an obvious racial motivation to this recent attack that resulted in the deaths of six people of Asian descent. Even if the shooter’s motivation cannot be definitively proven, though, the shootings represent a painful and terrifying culmination of a year filled with bigoted rhetoric.
The Atlanta shooting
The shootings took place at three massage parlors: Young’s Asian Massage, near Acworth, Georgia, Gold Spa in northeast Atlanta and Aromatherapy Spa, across the street from Gold Spa.
Five people were shot and four died at Young’s Asian Massage, which was the first place hit in the spree. An hour later, police responded to an apparent robbery at Gold Spa, where three more people were shot and killed. One more person was killed at Aromatherapy Spa.
Of the eight who were killed on the night of March 16, six were of Asian descent, two were white and all but one were women (the victims’ identities have not been released). The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, is in custody. Long is a 21-year-old white man from Woodstock, Georgia (like Acworth, Woodstock is a northeastern suburb of Atlanta).
Atlanta police have told reporters that Long stated the shootings were not racially motivated and that he targeted parlors he had previously visited as a client. The suspect claimed to have a “sexual addiction.” Regardless of Long’s claims, the authorities have cautioned it is too early to definitively assign a motive to the attacks.
Responses to the Atlanta shooting
As has become almost routine in American society, as news of the shooting broke during the night and into the morning, social media was filled with expressions of sorrow, horror and sympathy for the victims and their families.
Amid the messages were missives from many Asian Americans who wrote of the anger and pain they felt for their community and Asian communities throughout the country.
Shortly after the news first broke, Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American novelist, tweeted, “Americans have killed Asians inside the country in racist incidents and outside the country in racist wars for centuries. Now, “Kung Flu” + bipartisan “nonracist” consensus on China as the enemy + white male anger + weapons + misogyny leads to the targeting of these Asian women.”
The morning after the shooting, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, a South Korean-born Washington Post journalist who is the president of the Asian American Journalists Association, tweeted a thread expressing support and sympathy “To all the Asian American and Pacific Islander journalists logging on/showing up to work this morning, feeling shook, horrified, exhausted and invisible.”
George Takei, a Japanese-American actor famous for playing the role of Hikaru Sulu on the original “Star Trek” television series, wrote on Twitter, “These women were people, with loved ones. They were struggling and marginalized. And if an eyewitnesses [sic] account is correct, they were targeted because they were Asian. Hold them in your hearts. Think of their families. And #StopAAPIHate.”
(AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander. Stop AAPI Hate is an organization dedicated to fighting bigotry against the community.)
Politics and hate
United States Representative Ted Lieu, of California, placed the blame for the attacks firmly at the feet of former President Donald Trump: “The former President used racist phrases like Kung Flu that inflamed discrimination against the Asian American community. Officials that continue to use ethnic identifiers in describing the virus are part of the problem. Please instead be a part of the solution.”
Representative Adam Schiff, also of California, echoed his colleague’s sentiments: “Words have meaning, and hateful rhetoric leads to tragic consequences. Hate crimes against Asian Americans are up dramatically, and just yesterday we saw the murder of several Asian victims in Atlanta. We must all speak out against violent anti-Asian attacks and hate speech.”
When in office, Trump regularly referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus,” the “Chinese virus” and even “Kung flu.” In fact, on the same night as the shooting, the former president was conducting a telephone interview on Fox News where he once again called COVID-19 the “China virus.”
As some Twitter users noted, on March 17, 2020, CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang, who is Chinese American, tweeted that on that day “a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the “Kung-Flu” to my face.”
During the 2020 campaign, both candidates made a point of using tough language in relation to China. Then-candidate Joe Biden even released an ad in April 2020 that accused Trump of “rolling over for the Chinese.”
An increase in hate crimes
Trump and his allies often dismissed criticisms of his rhetoric, arguing it wasn’t racist, just factual. During a White House briefing back in March 2020, Chanel Rion, a reporter for One American News Network, contended that the term “Chinese virus” was no more racist than “Chinese food.” Trump voiced his agreement.
Despite these protestations, though, data suggests that bigotry and animosity toward Asians increased considerably over the last year.
According to a study by California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, there were 122 hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 of the most populous US cities in 2020. That represented a 150% increase from 2019, even though hate crimes fell overall by roughly 7% last year.
In the spring of 2020, Human Rights Watch warned that anti-Asian racism was on the rise around the world, noting that both verbal and physical attacks had risen alongside the spread of the pandemic.
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