In the recent Atlanta-area shooting, eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were killed. This is horrifying and repulsive, but unfortunately it did not surprise me. Anti-Asian sentiments have been festering for months. Recent attacks against people of Asian descent in San Francisco and New York City are still fresh wounds. Last summer, a group of middle school boys stopped me on the sidewalk and asked, “do you eat bats?”
As they laughed and rode away, I braced myself not only for the next insult but the worsening strain of anti-Asian discrimination infecting the United States along with the coronavirus.
As a Chinese-American woman living in a majority-white midwestern community, I was never immune to racist comments, but they were typically more subtle – inquiries about where I came from “originally” or comments that my glasses did not stay put on my flat nose. This was different. It was blatant racism that in my mind undoubtedly drew influence from former President Trump’s references to the “Kung Flu” and the “China Virus.”
Facts about the Atlanta area shooting
Here is what we know about the Atlanta area shootings so far:
On Wednesday, March 16th, eight people were killed at three spas in the Atlanta area. Six of them were Asian women and two were white. One Hispanic man was injured during the shootings but is currently stable.
The first victims identified were Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; Xiaojie Tan, 49; and Daoyou Feng, 44. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was injured.
Police arrested Robert Aaron Long. He is charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.
Long told investigators that race did not motivate his crime. He instead claims the shootings were an attempt to end the temptation to his “sexual addiction.”
Police say they currently do not have sufficient evidence to classify these shootings as a hate crime.
Increased violence towards Asians
This shooting comes at a time of increased violence against people of Asian descent in the United States. Stop AAPI Hate, which provides a reporting center for harassment and violence against Asians and Pacific Islanders, tracked 3,795 incidents of discrimination between March 19, 2020, to February 28, 2021. They acknowledge that the true number may be higher due to underreporting.
According to their report, verbal harassment made up 68.1% of these bias-based incidents, and the site of discrimination most reported was at businesses (35.4%). They also found that women are 2.3 times more likely to report these incidents than men.
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino also released a report on the number of hate crimes reported in major US cities. The report shows a nearly 150% overall increase in hate crimes directed at Asian Americans from 2019 to 2020. The spike has been especially prominent in the largest American cities. New York City had an 833% increase, with anti-Asian hate crimes jumping from 3 to 28 in the past year. In Los Angeles, the increase was 114% from 7 to 15.
Some attribute this trend to xenophobic rhetoric used by the previous administration, as well as by other politicians, to describe COVID-19. Stop AAPI Hate tracked political candidates’ tweets that use derogatory anti-Asian language, such as “China Virus” and “plague from China.” They found that leading up to the 2020 election, 136 candidate tweets fell into this category. Their research suggests that Sen. Tom Cotton (R.-Ark.), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), and former President Donald Trump accounted for 93% of these tweets.
The challenges of classifying a hate crime
As reported by the New York Times, it is difficult to charge for a hate crime even if it may seem obvious based on the demographics of victims. Evidence must demonstrate race was a motive in carrying out the crime. For example, police look for proof of racial slurs uttered at the scene of the crime, statements indicating race-based intent, or a history of racist acts from the perpetrator. Yet, because many of these assaults do not lead to hate crime charges, it is difficult to understand the extent of this issue.
Yet for those who face this violence, the impacts can be devastating. The American Psychological Association affirms that hate crimes have negative effects on victims, perpetrators, and communities. Their research demonstrates that victims of hate crimes are more likely to suffer anger, depression, and post-traumatic stress than victims of other crimes. Hate crimes also spread fear within targeted communities.
Violence against Asians is nothing new
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker’s statement that the perpetrator of the recent shootings “had a really bad day” sparked outrage. The public has condemned Captain Baker’s comments as undermining the severity of the crime and sympathizing with the perpetrator rather than the victims. It has also made many people doubt a Black or Latino perpetrator would receive this kind of treatment from the police.
Much of the outcry within the AAPI community stems from the silence in the face of violence towards Asians and Pacific Islanders throughout their history in the United States.
Here are a few examples, cited in Time:
Laborers in the West beat, tortured, and lynched early Chinese immigrants who came during the mid-nineteenth century. Yet these crimes often went unreported. Even if they did, for decades a law banned the Chinese from testifying in court against people of European descent.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, the US held around 120,000 Japanese people in internment camps between 1942 and 1945. Most were American citizens. In these internment camps, some Japanese people experienced violence. Some were even shot for getting too close to the perimeter.
In Detroit, Michigan in 1982, two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, beat Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American man, with a baseball bat. Chin died four days after the incident. Ebens and Nitz were only sentenced to three years probation and a $3,000 fine, with no jail time.
Responses from the Asian-American community
The response to the Atlanta-area shootings is not singular within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. As Nicole Hong and Jonah E. Bromwich have reported in the New York Times, while some call for lowering standards for hate crime charges and increased police funding, others fear this will cause more harm than good to communities of color, especially Black and Latinx communities. Furthermore, they argue that it fails to address the underlying causes of these racist acts.
How to end hate?
The recent violence towards Asians and Pacific Islanders terrifies and saddens me. I hope for justice, but above all else, I hope we will work for long-term solutions that address the bigoted political rhetoric and xenophobia that have infected this country with hatred. I hope these events will inspire us to work with other marginalized communities who suffer the same illness – white supremacy.