Were the Atlanta shootings in three Asian-owned spas due to racism?
- On Tuesday, March 16 in Atlanta, GA, eight people, including six Asian women, died in three massage parlor shootings by 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long. Long claimed the incidents were not racially motivated, but due to sex addiction. Over the last 10 years, police records indicate two of the spas had been targets for prostitution rings.
- Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) “strongly” believes the shootings to be hate crimes as Long chose “specifically Asian” spas within the span of 27 miles.
- STOP AAPI Hate recently reported a record high number of anti-Asian hate crimes within the past year since the pandemic started. From March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021, 3,795 incidents were reported versus the previous year's 2,808 incidents.
- 2018 US DOJ data (Table 14) records 182,230 violent acts committed against Asian people that year; 563,940 against Blacks, 734,410 against Hispanics, and 3,581,360 against Whites. 62.1% of attacks against Whites were committed by Whites, 70.3% were Blacks against Blacks, 45.4% were Hispanics against Hispanics, but 27.5% of attacks against Asian people were committed Blacks, compared to 24.1% by other Asians and Whites, and 7% by Hispanics. 2019 US DOJ data (Tables 15-17) on criminal victimization does not separate Asians in the number of violent incidents, by victim and offender race or ethnicity, as does the 2018 data.
The massage parlor shootings in Atlanta are an utter tragedy. Two other things are also distressing: the assumption that all Asian massage parlors also function as erotic massage parlors and the immediacy in which the media framed the tragic story as being driven solely by racism. The media's mad dash for a 'hot take' leads down the road of massive leaps of logic which often remain uncorrected even after new information is uncovered.
Upon his arrest, the shooter evidently told police he 'has a sex addiction' and was trying to eliminate the temptation, which by no means lessens the severity of the crime. Obviously, this thinking is deranged. However, focusing on the race of six of the eight victims along with the victimizer doesn't give anyone the authority to declare the shooter's motives, as it appears Asian spas are common in Atlanta. This isn't to say we take the shooter at his word. But it also doesn't indicate an implicit underlying motivation of racism.
Allegedly the shooter had visited one or more of these locales and engaged in some variety of sexual activity he was later exceedingly remorseful about. And at least one of the spas does appear to propagate the distorted pop culture image of 'sexy but submissive' female Asian. Given some extremes found in 'purity culture,' it perhaps explains his efforts to eradicate 'sinful desires.' Ironically, the 'solution' to solve his sexual problem was also clearly a 'sinful desire,' and his church has understandably disavowed him. Racism, while being disgustingly abhorrent, is easily hurled these days. But it isn't helpful or truthful to automatically decry everything as racist based on skin colors alone.
The shooter may have claimed he was 'not motivated by race,' however, experts suggest there is 'no doubt' racism had a role in his actions. Of course, as with any act of violence, the underlying cause can't be boiled down to a single issue. But as Grace Pai, a Director of Organizing at Chicago's Asian Americans Advancing Justice branch, said: 'to think that someone targeted three Asian-owned businesses that were staffed by Asian American women […] and didn't have race or gender in mind is just absurd.' Dr. Melissa Borja, assistant professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American studies at the University of Michigan, told ABC News that the shooting was 'part of a 'long-standing trend of violence' against Asian American women,' taking place among a rise in such violence and encouraged 'by the racist rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.' Note that a recent survey of 16 US cities showed an increase in anti-Asian violence, even as 'the total number of hate crimes against all minority groups in those cities declined.' Sociologist Kimberly Kay Hoang wrote in an essay on Vox that 'gun violence, race, and gender all intersect here.' Her essay explores the deeper issues at play and points out that the 'sex addiction' narrative, if true, doesn't rule out racism. Whenever a tragedy such as this occurs, there is a knee-jerk, reactionary attempt to find a quick fix, which often leads us away from discussing the larger underlying problems. While likely not the only contributing factor, racism certainly seems to be one of those underlying problems in this case.