Law and Politics People and Community

Atlanta shootings point to intersection of racism, sexism

While the suspect in the killing of eight people—six of them women of Asian descent—at Atlanta-area massage businesses has claimed his shooting spree was not racially motivated but done to eliminate a “temptation,” experts say racism and sexism are inseparable.
Flowers, candles and signs are displayed at a makeshift memorial on Friday, March 19, 2021, in Atlanta. Robert Aaron Long, a white man, is accused of killing several people, most of whom were of Asian descent, at massage parlors in the Atlanta area. (AP Photo/Candice Choi)
Flowers, candles, and signs are displayed at a makeshift memorial on March 19, in Atlanta. Photo: The Associated Press

She was close to retiring and had been planning to travel the world. But Xiaojie Tan, the owner of Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia, who went from being a nail tech to a business owner in just 15 years and often worked seven days a week to support her sister and mother in China, never got the chance. 

On March 16, a day before her 50th birthday, a 21-year-old man armed with a 9-millimeter handgun he had purchased only hours earlier entered Tan’s spa and opened fire, killing her and three others. 

The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, went on to murder four more people at two other Atlanta-area spas that day. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent. 

According to law enforcement officials, Long confessed to the killings, saying his shooting spree was not racially motivated but done to “eliminate” a “temptation.” 

But that comment, along with Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker’s statement that Long had “a bad day,” have enraged members of the Asian American community as well as academics, who say that, in reality, racism and sexism are inseparable. 

“The killer showed that for him, these women were not worth respect as human beings, but were sexual objects,” said Claire Oueslati-Porter, a senior lecturer in gender and sexuality studies in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. “He specifically went to Asian businesses with Asian workers. There were other businesses on the same street that he could have attacked but didn’t. The fact that he felt he had the power to ‘eliminate’ Asian women means that he was engaged in white supremacist patriarchal violence. He denied racism, but a lot of racism isn’t understood as such by the racist. The killer justified his violence by using his religiosity, describing these human beings as ‘temptations.’ ”

Indeed, advocates say the Atlanta shootings are indicative of a long history of racism and misogyny against Asian women. “We should examine the imperial relations of power between the USA and Asian countries, beyond popular representations,” Oueslati-Porter explained. “For example, the U.S. relationship to the Philippines and wars fought in Asian countries where women were hypersexualized by the military. We can also examine the U.S. history of legal discrimination against Asian immigrants.” 

It is critical to understand that “violence can be racially and gendered motivated—that is, racialized misogyny,” said Donna Coker, professor of law and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar at the University of Miami School of Law. “That the two are intertwined. There is a long history of white men fetishizing Asian women, of presuming them to be sexually available. In addition, there is a long history of blaming women—and particularly women who are of racially subordinated groups—for male sexual desire.” 

And Hollywood films such as “Full Metal Jacket” have contributed to the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women, said Oueslati-Porter. “There is also a paucity of representations of Asian women in cinema, other than as exoticized sexualized objects,” she said, adding that the way Asian women are commodified in sexually oriented industries, including pornography, is especially degrading. 

The shootings come as the nation continues to see a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. New data recently released by the Asian American advocacy organization Stop AAPI Hate shows that nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian hate were reported between March 2020 and the end of February 2021, with women making up the overwhelming majority of those reports—68 percent. 

While the Atlanta massacre has shocked the nation, acts of hate against Asians and Asian Americans actually “are as old as our nation,” said M. Evelina Galang, an American novelist and activist of Filipina descent who is a professor in the University of Miami’s Creative Writing Program. 

“We need only look at the 1871 lynching of 18 Chinese in Los Angeles, the 120,000 Japanese Americans placed in U.S. internment camps during World War II, the brutal 1926 beatings and stabbing of Filipinos in Stockton California, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, and most recently the beatings of our Asian American elders during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. 

It is important, Galang said, to remember the victims of the Atlanta shootings as human beings. “They were eight souls, minding their own business, leading lives during a difficult period of our nation’s history,” she said. “It is important to remain vigilant when it comes to our humanity. We cannot go numb just because it happens often or because the victims are not our sisters, our aunties, our uncle. The people massacred over this young man’s ‘bad day’ were victims of a hate crime, one aimed at a community of Asians and Asian American women who are so often hypersexualized, abused, and to top it off, are not seen as the human beings that they are.” 

Much to the dismay of many people, federal and local law enforcement officials say they have yet to find solid evidence to build a strong federal hate crime case against Long, which speaks to the difficulty prosecutors often face in proving such crimes. “Hate crimes can be challenging because the prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator chose his victim because of a specific motivation such as the victim’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation,” said Scott Sundby, a professor of law and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar at the School of Law. 

Proving motivation is an extra hurdle that prosecutors normally do not have to prove, Sundby said. “For example, a prosecutor does not have to prove why you robbed the bank, only that you did rob it,” he said. “In some cases, the ‘hate’ motive can be readily shown—for example, the defendant uttered racial slurs while beating the victim. But in other cases, we have to piece it together off of circumstantial evidence, which can make it much more difficult for a prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

With protests calling for an end to anti-Asian hate now sweeping the nation, some experts say Asian Americans can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement that has been so vocal since the George Floyd killing. 

“We have to find something that can come out of this, and I think the linkage to the BLM movement is a good analogy,” said Alex Piquero, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and a leading authority on criminology and criminal justice. “Especially since the Spring of 2020, Asians and Asian Americans have seen a lot of negativity and violence aimed at them at no fault of their own,” he said. 

“In one sense, the Atlanta killings may serve to educate non-Asians about the issues they [Asians] have been facing—and historically have faced—in the United States,” Piquero said. “The more we can educate people to be more tolerant of one another the better off we will all be. But it still remains the case that these acts also had a gender component to them. We cannot lose sight of that demographic interaction of Asian American women being victimized.” 

The next Courageous Conversation at the University of Miami—#StopAsianHate: Raising Awareness and Building Community—will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 31. Courageous Conversations is a series of events designed to foster inclusion and belonging by providing opportunities for members of the University community to voice their perspectives. Register here.