On March 16, eight people were killed at three separate massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of the victims were Asian women of Korean and Chinese descent: Suncha Kim, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Daoyou Feng, and Xiaojie Tan. The other two slain victims, Delaina Yaun and Paul Andre Michels, were white.
Much of the conversation around the killings has been about whether these attacks constitute hate crimes. Arguing whether these slayings were racially motivated seems absurd, but it’s a symptom of an innate unwillingness to recognize anti-Asian hate crimes in this country.
Given the facts of the killings — that the three separate businesses attacked were Asian-owned massage parlors, that the majority of victims were Korean and Chinese women — the shootings clearly appeared racially motivated on their surface, with added nuances of misogyny and classism. Yet Atlanta Police Department officers checked “no” under whether the shootings were suspected hate crimes in the initial report filed, according to NPR.
After the gunman, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, was arrested, law enforcement further downplayed the apparent racism behind the shootings. Instead, they chose to amplify the killer’s claims that a “sexual addiction” was his true motive, saying Long simply had a “really bad day” and “this was a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
“When you use a phrase like ‘sexual addiction,’ for experts in the field we already know that is a racialized stereotype.”
Some say that proving an incident was specifically motivated by anti-Asian racism can be more difficult than identifying other hate crimes because anti-Asian racism sometimes manifests in less flagrant ways, like avoidance, denial, or pervasive cultural stereotypes. It lacks the explicit symbols that other forms of racism carry, like a noose or a swastika, which are widely synonymous with specific forms of hate. It is also vastly underreported; criminal justice experts and community advocates say law enforcement databases on anti-Asian hate crimes are likely inaccurate because of factors like language barriers or fear of repercussions against the victim’s immigration status.
But anti-Asian hate is a constant in U.S. history. And symbols of that racism are easily identifiable through time, from the wars America waged in Asia to the physical attacks we’ve seen at home, including the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin in Michigan and last week’s shootings in Atlanta.
“Comparisons aren't really helpful because then you miss the real symbolism that does exist,” said Dr. Helen Jin Kim, an assistant professor of American religious history at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “We already know that Korean women have been hyper-sexualized because of military intervention in Korea. So when you use a phrase like ‘sexual addiction’ [to explain the mass murder of these Korean women], for experts in the field we already know that is a racialized stereotype.”
Stretching back to the 19th century, America’s history of anti-Asian violence first manifested through racist federal immigration laws targeting early Asian immigrants from China, Japan, India, Korea, and the Philippines. After World War II, anti-Asian violence continued through U.S. imperialism, as the U.S. waged war against countries in the Asia Pacific region, displacing thousands of East Asians and Southeast Asians who inevitably migrated as refugees to the U.S.
These days, identifying anti-Asian racism is still pretty clear-cut if you’re bothering to pay attention. The politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic — fueled by racist language from then-President Donald Trump and his supporters calling the disease the “China virus” and the “Kung Flu” — stoked existing anti-Asian racism and led to the extreme visibility of anti-Asian hate crimes.
Between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, the non-profit Stop AAPI Hate, which has been compiling reports of anti-Asian hate, received nearly 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian racism — reflecting a 145% hike in reported anti-Asian crimes even though overall hate crimes had dropped by 6%. In the just 59 days of 2021, Stop AAPI Hate received 503 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes.
“I'm really scared for immigrant community members, especially those that don't speak English well, that have accents, because they’re usually the main targets of violence,” says Suraiya Sharker, an organizer for the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum's (NAPAWF) Georgia Chapter, who has been organizing processing circles and vigils in the wake of the Atlanta shootings. “It’s usually women, usually elderly, folks that have accents or language barriers.”
Many believe Asian Americans are highly successful, a damaging effect of the model minority myth — the false idea that Asian Americans as a minority group have achieved social and economic status levels comparable to white Americans. In reality, Asian American communities are among the poorest demographics in the U.S and experience racism daily. And even if an Asian person has achieved a certain level of privilege, it doesn’t erase generational trauma or other barriers that are intrinsically linked to the fact that they are not white.
“None of us are really the model minority. We experience racism, we experience violence, and we are loud,” says Sharker, whose Bangladeshi Muslim parents have dealt with workplace racism and Islamophobia. “[Asian Americans] want to fight back, and we're willing to fight back.”
Another reason why law enforcement hate crime databases are so shoddy is the lack of oversight in compiling hate crime data. Many agencies still don’t report incidents of hate crimes to the FBI for the bureau’s annual crime report and are not legally required to do so.
Based on 2016 data from the FBI, an investigation by ProPublica found that seven law enforcement agencies in Georgia were among 100 of the largest agencies in the U.S. — yet they had reported zero or fewer than one hate crime per 100,000 residents. Cherokee County, the location of one of the attacked massage parlors, was among a number of Georgia counties that reported zero hate crimes to the FBI.
Even when anti-Asian hate crimes are reported to authorities, data shows victims rarely receive justice. In New York City, several attacks on Asian victims have been reported to the police, including the stabbing of a Chinese man walking home near Chinatown. The perpetrator has since been arrested and charged with attempted murder, but not with a hate crime. In fact, for all the anti-Asian incidents reported to the New York Police Department this year, only one person has been charged with a hate crime: a Taiwanese man accused of writing anti-Chinese graffiti outside of stores in Queens.
The reality of the killings, combined with the inane arguments over whether the attacks were really motivated by anti-Asian racism, has left plenty of emotional wreckage in the wake of a shared tragedy.
It is generally difficult to prosecute an incident as a racial hate crime in the U.S. without explicit evidence of racial bias. While a federal statute to prosecute hate crimes does exist, hate crime laws vary between states. Some states have hate crime laws that cover various crimes based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality, but others don’t. To date, there are still three states that don’t have hate crime statutes on the books at all: South Carolina, Arkansas, and Wyoming.
Outside of the legal limitations, there are societal factors that make it difficult for Americans to acknowledge anti-Asian racism, like the racial apathy that comes from the model minority myth. In general, American society is so reluctant to see racism, particularly anti-Asian racism, that we need literal signs to tell us whether something is racist. But there shouldn’t be a need for reductive symbols to prove racism when the evidence is splayed out in the form of mass killing scenes. And it does nothing to help fix our distorted perceptions when the default framework we use to evaluate incidents of racism is based on whiteness.
Until last year, Georgia was among the states without a hate crime law. It finally passed one following the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was targeted and killed by armed white men while jogging in Glynn County last February. Legal observers think Long’s case could be the first real test of Georgia’s hate crime penalty. But the law’s scope is broad, and given law enforcement’s credulous focus on the shooter’s “sex addiction” claim, it seems possible that a hate crime charge would more likely be made off the shared gender of the majority of victims than their shared racial identity.
While there has been a great sense of community following the Atlanta shootings — one that Sharker describes as "bittersweet" — Asian communities are still reeling. The reality of the killings, combined with the inane arguments over whether the attacks were really motivated by anti-Asian racism, has left plenty of emotional wreckage in the wake of a shared tragedy. Add in the other slights, like the yellow squares one organization bafflingly thought would be good to post in solidarity, or the fact that law enforcement mistranscribed several of the victims’ names, and it’s clear there’s work to be done. And it starts with honoring the people who were taken from us.
“I think the most important thing in shaping the national narrative right now is to prioritize ... the stories of the women who were murdered,” Kim says. “Let's try to understand their lives, their stories, the history in terms of how they got here, and what it means to be ... an Asian American woman in this country. Let's start there.”