In the wake of Tuesday’s brutal killing spree against Asian women, activists say the bloodshed should serve as a wake-up call to how Asian American women are routinely dehumanized—but police are too busy humanizing the accused gunman to recognize the hate crime they say he committed.
“The first thing I thought about when the police said it’s not a racially motivated crime because he said so is that they don’t understand how racism works in this country,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.
“We can’t just say we’re not talking about the racism piece of it. We can’t separate that from the gender aspect of what happened,” she told The Daily Beast.
Of the eight victims killed in the string of attacks on Atlanta area massage parlors, six were Asian women, four of whom were of Korean descent.
But neither police nor the Fulton County district attorney have designated the attacks as racist hate crimes in their ongoing investigations, nor have authorities said if they believe the shooter targeted Asian women on purpose. The suspect “claims the shootings were not racially motivated,” Cherokee County sheriff’s office spokesman Jay Baker said Wednesday morning. Baker himself had promoted shirts on Facebook that called the coronavirus “imported from Chy-na.”
Four of the victims, all shot at Young’s Asian Massage, have been identified: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54. Yaun had been on a date with her husband of less than a year. The other four victims remain unidentified.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested the night of the shootings and confessed Wednesday. He has been charged with murder and attempted murder. Police say that when officers apprehended him, he said he was en route to a pornography business in Florida where “very likely there would have been more victims.” Police said Long had visited the massage parlors before.
Authorities have made a series of statements that were criticized for failing to meet the moment. Baker said the alleged shooter had “a really bad day” and repeated Long’s claims that struggles with sex addiction, not racist animus, drove him to “eliminate” so-called “temptation.”
The failure of law enforcement to even nod to the toll of the massacre on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has stung. The attacks come amid a tide of violence against Asian-Americans across the country that has risen sharply during the coronavirus pandemic. Though the confessed killer may have said race did not motivate him, members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community are calling BS on both the explanation and the police who appear so ready to go along with it.
For them, it’s clear the shooting was neither racially or sexually motivated—it was both, a product of the sexualization of Asian women.
Choimorrow, who was born in Korea, said the racialized sexual harassment she experienced when she moved to the U.S. “floored” her, as have accounts from Asian women in her organization. She called the sheriff’s statement “a sad excuse.”
“Really? Six Asian women are dead, and all you can say is this guy was having a rough day? We see the complete dehumanization of these victims. He wanted to ‘eliminate the temptation’? That’s playing into the racist and sexist narrative even as you’re saying this was not racially motivated. No one but you is responsible for your sex addiction but you,” she said.
Rather than palliating the fear in the community, the sheriff’s office made things worse, Choimorrow said.
“I felt like they painted a narrative that was about the killer, and that makes me angry and sad. It made me feel all the ways our community has been dehumanized,” she said.
Tanya Chen, a journalist with BuzzFeed News, wrote that regardless of the shooter’s motives, the majority of his victims were Asian women, a fact that terrorized Asian-Americans.
She tweeted, “I’m sick of the reluctance to call these murders a hate crime, as if we need a physical manifesto stating his motives. He killed a disproportionate amount of Asian women, that’s what he did. He’s caused fear among Asian people to merely exist. Let’s focus on causation > intention.”
Chen elaborated in an interview with The Daily Beast that prioritizing the shooter’s life and motives over the pain of Asian-Americans is not a helpful way of facilitating healing and understanding.
“I think we become focused and obsessed with motives, and I’m not sure how helpful that is, especially to the millions of Asian people in America who are hurting and scared. Actually I am sure: It’s not very helpful at all,” she said.
Both Chen and Choimorrow said they were appalled and disheartened by the crime, but not surprised. Anti-Asian violence is on the rise across the country, and Georgia is no exception. Georgia State Senator Dr. Michelle Au testified the day prior to the shootings on anti-Asian harassment and hate crimes, citing 32 that had been reported in Atlanta over the past year. The majority of the thousands of racist actions reported to the anti-racism organization Stop AAPI Hate were against women.
Stop AAPI Hate echoed Chen in a series of tweets: “Law enforcement is leading with a narrative that yesterday’s violent incident was not racially motivated based on the shooter’s testimony. The fact remains that all but two of the victims in this tragic incident were Asian American women and that these were all Asian-owned businesses.”
Au said in a statement that “while it is too early to ascribe the motivations behind these shootings… Our AAPI community has been living in fear this past year in the shadow of escalating racial discrimination and attacks. This latest series of murders only heightens that terror.”
Law enforcement must balance concerns of both legality and public opinion in the tense aftermath of atrocities with such obvious evidence and implications. The FBI, which is tasked with investigating hate crimes, defines a hate crime as “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias.”
Law enforcement’s failure in this case, Chen said, was not even acknowledging the pain of the Asian-American community.