Image from ACLU
Guest blog: Carole Marmell, Leading Consciously Content Editor
If this were a play, critics would complain the plot is unoriginal: young White man, having “a bad day”,1 murders marginalized people, is arrested without injury. His statement that he didn’t target anyone for their ethnicity/caste is taken at face value. The police who arrested him are stunned to hear that people believe they treated him any differently because he was White.
But it’s not a play. It’s real life, and people have dramatically different conceptions of what constitutes a hate crime. Some believe it requires a statement such as “I’m going to kill as many X as I can.” They fail to consider the steady drip of slights that lead up to it.
Hate is not a one-time thing. Hate is cumulative. Whether the gunman set out specifically to kill Asian women at this moment is not the whole picture. Did he choose to patronize Asian women in the first place because he felt they were available, submissive, and appropriate outlets for his self-loathing? It’s easier to kill people if you devalue them first.
When people have multiple labels – Asian, women, immigrants, possibly undocumented, sex workers – the “othering” is complete. They are stereotypes, not people; they are “less than.”
Consider the role of “less than” in our world. A White man gets his feelings hurt: he didn’t shoot because the man was Black, but because he was wearing a hoodie (Trayvon Martin). He didn’t shoot because the man was Asian, but because he was assumed to be taking martial arts position (Kuan Chung Kao).
Of the eight murdered people in Atlanta, six were Asian. Seven were women. They were at the intersection of bias: Asian, women, immigrants – possibly undocumented, and possibly sex workers. In the American caste system, they had lesser value. The fact of the police spokesman saying the gunman was “having a bad day” clearly expressed his value system. The constant drip of othering is the background for actions that feel justified.
May Jeong writes in The New York Times:2
I have spent the past few years researching the various ways sex work intersects with race, class and gender, routinely amazed by how it connects to such disparate issues as criminal justice, gentrification, poverty, immigration and trans rights.
I have come to understand sex work rights as an overlooked civil rights issue that deserves study. The stereotype of the Asian woman as simultaneously hypersexualized and submissive is borne of centuries of Western imperialism.
The events were also informed by class: These women, some of whom were working class, almost certainly died because they were at work. As working women of color, they existed at the terrible nexus of race, gender and class.
It is, of course, often women who don’t speak English or are undocumented who are locked out of traditional labor markets, or are otherwise marginalized.
Anti-Asian prejudice tracks back to the days of building the transcontinental railroad, when Chinese men were imported to fill the labor shortage. They were poorly treated and poorly paid, but were nevertheless resented for their work ethic and for their cleanliness (boiling water for tea greatly reduced the incidence of disease). As Adrian De Leon writes:
But in the United States, Asian Americans have long been considered as a threat to a nation that promoted a whites-only immigration policy. They were called a “yellow peril”: unclean and unfit for citizenship in America.
In the late 19th century, white nativists spread xenophobic propaganda about Chinese uncleanliness in San Francisco. This fueled the passage of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law in the United States that barred immigration solely based on race.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 to incarcerate people under suspicion as enemies to inland internment camps.
While the order also affected German- and Italian-Americans on the East Coast, the vast majority of those incarcerated in 1942 were of Japanese descent. Many of them were naturalized citizens, second- and third-generation Americans. Internees who fought in the celebrated 442nd Regiment were coerced by the United States military to prove their loyalty to a country that locked them up simply for being Japanese.3
The war in Vietnam resurrected anti-Asian feelings. Asians were the enemy, to be feared and hated. Soldiers came home psychologically wounded, full of rage and hatred; the long tail of that war continues to fester. Popular culture was part of it. Think of films such as Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now.
Fast forward a generation and along came Covid-19. By naming it the Chinese flu, the then-president fanned anti-Asian prejudice. Rather than address the pandemic, he subliminally directed his rabble to attack Asians.
He did not create the bias; he gave it legitimacy. He created justification for it. He encouraged it. In a culture of diminishment, he provided Whites who felt threatened a place to feel important, to feel better than, to find scapegoats for their resentments. Combined with a violent subculture, some of that hatred is expressed in violence. Not all his believers took up arms, but he made it easier for those so inclined.
Singling out Asians as a model minority is a perfect example of how even positive stereotyping can breed bias. De Leon explains:
Until the eve of the COVID-19 crisis, the prevailing narrative about Asian Americans was known as the model minority.
The model minority concept, developed during and after World War II, posits that Asian Americans were the ideal immigrants of color to the United States due to their economic success.4
This is despite evidence to the contrary for many recent Asian immigrants. Income inequality nearly doubled among Asians in the U.S. from 1970 to 2016.5 Four of the women killed that night were Korean, whose incomes are below average. Women who work in massage parlors generally have pitifully few choices. With no American education, possibly no papers, and not much English, they don’t have a lot of other options to support their families.
Writes Brian X. Chen in The New York Times:6
The Asian-American experience is a tale of contrast.
We are immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, from more than 20 countries in East, South and Southeast Asia. We speak different languages and eat different food. Some lead America’s most successful companies, like Google and Zoom. Others run small businesses, like Chinese restaurants and spas, which have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. We also have the nation’s largest wealth gap: While some Asians earn household incomes that far exceed the national average, others consistently have the highest poverty rates.
A study of legislative tweets addressing racism in COVID coverage reports: “Democrats and legislators of color are far more likely to tweet opposition to racism and anti-Asian discrimination, and likely to tweet more often, than Republicans and White legislators… Female legislators are more likely to tweet opposition to this form of racism than male legislators.”7
White men appear to have difficulty recognizing bias. As reported by Joe Walsh,8 FBI Director Christopher Wray told NPR Tuesday’s Atlanta-area shootings…do not seem to be linked to race, backing up local police who say the alleged shooter was probably motivated by a sex addiction. “While the motive remains still under investigation, at the moment, it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated,” Wray told NPR.
Bill Maher discusses this on his March 19th show.
This story is also instructive, and I think it says a lot about our tribalism and our inability to see evidence as opposed to what would fit the narrative that we already believe.
Marilyn Strickland, a Washington state congresswoman, said racially motivated violence should be called for exactly what it is and we must stop making excuses or rebranding it as economic anxiety or sexual addiction.
But what if it is that?
Everything I've read about this guy, Robert Aaron Long, conservative Baptist – he's an…assassin. He's flagellating himself because he feels bad about sex, all the uh sexual urges…shouldn't be doing this...porn addiction…massage parlor...seeks treatment for sexual addiction.
The roommate said whenever he would talk about visiting the massage parlors it was in the context of God and his parents. Wouldn't the roommate know if it was about race?9
Maher speaks for many when they choose to look at the evidence about one incident without placing it in historical or social context. They look at the facts as if they are on a jury. Background conditioning about what it means to go to a specifically Asian massage parlor is not part of the framework. Unconscious bias [blog #36] is not in the discussion.
Would the roommate know if it were race? Suppose the inferiority of Asian women was a given for them. Would they even discuss it?
Maher then added: “I really feel like if it was Armenians who were manning the massage parlors, he would have killed Armenians.”
The question is whether he would have even chosen to go to a massage parlor staffed by Armenians. Maher assumes he would have. Some of us don’t see it that way. The statistics about recent violence against Asian Americans are horrendous.
Jeung, R., Yellow Horse, A., Popovic, T., and Lim, R. (2021). Stop AAPI Hate National Report, 3/19/20 – 2/28/21.
Historically Asians did not function as a single group. Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Indian…all have proud cultures and varying backgrounds. They have had to unite to have any political clout.
Hua Hsu writes in The New Yorker:
For decades, Asian people in America tended to identify more with their own nationality and ethnicity than with a broad Asian-American community. But, in the sixties and seventies, a more inclusive sense of Asian-American identity grew out of a desire for political solidarity…
But the real turning point came in 1982, when two white men, one of whom had been laid off from his job as an autoworker, followed Vincent Chin, a young Chinese-American draftsman, from a Detroit bar to a nearby McDonald’s and beat him to death…The men later claimed that it was a fight that had gotten out of hand, and that they were not motivated by Chin’s race. They were given probation and fined.10
Brian Chen continues:
The endless list of disparities and nuances has made solidarity elusive for Asian-Americans, even as activist groups demand that our issues be recognized…
The events of the past year – from the former president’s racial slurs to the series of attacks on Asians, leading up to the Tuesday shootings of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at massage parlors in Atlanta – could be uniting people for a new reason: fear.
Last year, reported hate crimes against people of Asian descent in New York City jumped 833 percent from 2019. The shared pain and disrespect could finally be giving Asians grounds for solidarity – and a platform to be visible.
A friend of mine, a Jewish woman, is married to a Chinese man. We exchanged texts about the murder. She wrote:
I’d suggest people listen to Asian Americans. Show support. Explain why labeling COVID by its place of origin is racist. Maybe explain that racial sexual fetishism is a form of white supremacy. And that colored bodies are not objects that need to end for white people to become pure.
Sexual purity culture also contributes to racism, by pushing a natural part of human nature to The Other Evil Bad Ones. It’s more nuanced to me (because I think there are valid reasons to criticize China), but the blanket political disparagement of that country and using it as a battering ram in domestic politics also adds to anti-Asian racism.
As Christina M. Tapper writes in ZORA:11 “Many of us are, yet again, feeling helpless. The burden to abolish a system that exists to subjugate, maim, and kill us is not – and should not – be ours. That is work for White folks to do. Right now, let’s take care of ourselves and each other, and stand together with the grieving.”
Those of us who want to be part of the solution can increase our awareness and engage in social action.
Resources exist in abundance; to study the history of anti-Asian bias, to look at all its cultural underpinnings, to examine our own biases, and to combat biases In ourselves and in society. For a start, check out Anti-Asian Violence Resources.12
Radical solutions don’t present themselves. Long-standing prejudices compounded by public figures who are unaware at best and demogogues at worst can best be fought by public opinion. We can all engage in community action by speaking out, educating, protesting, boycotting, and most of all, voting.
Questions to ask ourselves:
Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:
1 Baer, S. The Cop Who Said the Spa Shooter Had a “Bad Day” Will No Longer Be the Spokesperson For the Case. Buzzfeed News.
3 De Leon, A. The long history of U.S. racism against Asian Americans, from ‘yellow peril’ to ‘model minority’ to ‘the Chinese virus.’ The Conversation. April 8, 2020.
4 De Leon, A. The long history of U.S. racism against Asian Americans, from ‘yellow peril’ to ‘model minority’ to ‘the Chinese virus.’ The Conversation. April 8, 2020.
5 Kochhar, R. and Cilluffo, A. Income Inequality in the US is Rising Most Rapidly Among Asians.
7 Arora, M. and Kim, H.J. Stopping the hate: Political condemnations of anti-Asian rhetoric during the COVID-19 crisis. Project MUSE, J Asian American Studies, vol 23 #3, Oct 2020. Johns Hopkins University Press.
8 Walsh, J.. FBI Director Says Atlanta Shooting ‘Does Not Appear’ Racially Motivated. Forbes.