It has been one full year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In the United States (U.S.), the number of new COVID-19 infections is finally beginning to decline, but the wave of racism and xenophobic violence and discrimination against Asian communities only continues to rise.
The torrent of racist and violent attacks across the U.S. coincide with the global spread of the novel coronavirus, which former President Donald Trump and his followers referred to as “the Chinese virus” or “kung flu.” Certainly, the national surge of anti-Asian sentiment was spurred by the racist rhetoric of the most powerful person in the country.
Because of this, people of Asian descent are at greater risk of violence and discrimination than they were a year ago, and many live in perpetual fear. According to analyses of official preliminary police data, anti-Asian hate crimes surged 150 percent since the start of the pandemic. Additionally, since March 2020, a coalition of Asian-American advocacy groups that created a reporting centre called Stop AAPI Hate, recorded nearly 3,800 Anti-Asian hate incidents, which disproportionately targeted women. However, many of these incidents have not led to arrests or been charged as hate crimes, making it difficult to capture the true extent to which Asian-Americans are being targeted.
Just this past week, a mass shooter targeted three Asian-owned spas in the Atlanta area, killing six Asian women and two others. Police later arrested Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, for fatally shooting eight people on March 16. After the arrest, Long reportedly denied that the killings were racially motivated, and he told officials that the shootings were a form of vengeance for his “sexual addiction.” According to investigators, Long wanted to “eliminate temptation” by targeting businesses, like massage parlours, that triggered his obsession with sex.
National outrage over the mass shooting was exacerbated after investigators claimed that it was too early to determine a clear motive, and police did not immediately charge Long for committing a hate crime. To many, the mass shooting felt like an infuriatingly obvious repercussion to years of unchecked hate crimes against Asian-Americans. Many advocates and community leaders have noted that racist assaults and unprovoked attacks against Asian-Americans have been far too overlooked by authorities.
Law enforcement needs “some training on understanding what a hate crime is,” said Margaret Huang, President and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that tracks hate groups. The gunman “identified targets owned by Asians…[and] was very clearly going after a targeted group of people.”
Other activists have also noted that the Atlanta shootings were not just about anti-Asian hate. The cultural stereotypes that cast Asian women as weak, submissive, and exotic are argued to have played a significant role in the violent attack. As such the murders were not only a result of deep systemic racism, but misogyny and racial sexual fetishization that are all too familiar for Asian and Asian-American women.
“The way their race intersects with their gender makes Asian and Asian-American women uniquely vulnerable to violence,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, Executive Director of the nonprofit advocacy group National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. As a result of the deadly shootings this past week, the intertwined factors of racism and sexism came to light on a national scale.
What made matters worse was that Cherokee County Sheriff’s Captain Jay Baker asserted that the gunman was having “a really bad day” in attempts to justify his actions at a press briefing following the attacks. Many women took this as yet another way of excusing the sexual and gender-based violence against them. The statement not only discounted and dismissed a white man’s hate crime, but illustrated the unequal treatment of women in society. When women are seen as overly emotional, they are seen as incompetent to hold positions of leadership and power; when men are seen as overly emotional, their violent actions get validated.
Captain Baker’s remarks were heavily criticized on social media, with critics characterizing them as callous and pointing to Facebook posts in which he promoted sales of an anti-Asian T-shirt. The shirts echoed the discriminatory rhetoric of former President Donald Trump by referring to the coronavirus as an “imported virus from Chy-na,” according to the New York Times. Clearly, the alarming rise in violence targeting the Asian community is a direct result of the casual, open racism against Asian-Americans, that even the highest levels of authority embody.
Other recent attacks have also revealed that sexual violence and racially-motivated hate crimes are not mutually exclusive. For instance, on March 12, a 26-year-old Asian woman was violently struck, called racial slurs, and sexually assaulted by a white man while waiting for a morning commuter train in San Jose. Likewise, in September 2020, a 36-year-old Asian woman was brutally attacked, raped, and murdered by a group of male teenagers in broad daylight in Milwaukee, as reported by Human Rights Watch.
Moreover, the latest string of attacks are not isolated incidents that resulted from increased anti-Asian views over the past year. Hate and violence against Asian-Americans, and particularly Asian-American women, are not something new. “There are many women who have died because of sexual violence directed at them that was also racialized, but it has never been at the scale where the whole country is watching and talking about it,” Choimorrow emphasized.
The U.S. has a long history of racial discrimination against people of Asian descent and other minorities, and it remains one of the country’s biggest unaddressed problems. As evidenced by violent attacks like the Chinese Massacre of 1871, racist policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, anti-Asian violence has deep roots in the United States.
In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, the nation must address the fact that anti-Asian hate crimes continue to increase. However, in order to confront the problem, the country must first address the history of xenophobia, exclusionary policies, and erasure that have left Asian communities vulnerable.
Local and national governments should work with communities to reimagine public safety and eradicate anti-Asian racism, misogyny, and white supremacy that continue to put lives at risk. Moreover, all levels of authority should clearly and forcefully denounce anti-Asian violence and ensure fair investigations and accountability for these hate crimes. Without doing so, Asians and Asian-American communities will fail to have long-term safety and proper healing from such injustices.
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