Editorial: Guns, racism, misogyny and the deadly shootings in Atlanta

Law enforcement vehicles with lights flashing outside a massage parlor at night.
Authorities investigate the scene of a fatal shooting late Tuesday near Atlanta, one of three attacks that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent.
(Mike Stewart / Associated Press)

It will be a while before we get a full picture of the motives behind the shootings at three spas in the Atlanta area late Tuesday afternoon, which police allege were committed by a 21-year-old white man. But the contours of the violence make one explanation plausible. Among the eight dead were six women of Asian descent, leading the Stop AAPI Hate advocacy group to describe the killings as an “unspeakable tragedy — for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the AAPI community — which has been reeling from high levels of racial discrimination.”

Police on Wednesday morning said that they were still trying to unravel what drove the gunman but that he may have been propelled by sexual addiction and his desire to, in effect, eliminate temptation. Yet the targeted businesses employed a high number of Asian workers — one spa, in which four people were killed, is named Young’s Asian Massage — so even if the motive sprang from another darkness, the result still left at least six people of Asian descent shot dead.

If it turns out that the spark for this particular mass shooting arose from a tortured mind and libido, Asian Americans still are right to worry about possible connections between the killings and the surge of violence targeting them.

Also worth noting: Police allege that the gunman targeted women (only one of the dead was male) for the “crime” of being the object of his sexual temptation. Coincidentally, the killings happened a day before the House of Representatives was set to vote — again — to revive the federal Violence Against Women Act.


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There’s a lot at play here, but more broadly, racial animosity, misogyny and easy access to firearms are a disturbingly routine confluence of three of the ugliest aspects of American society. That the violence in the Atlanta area quickly led minds to presume, rightly or wrongly, that another act of anti-Asian racism had occurred was not at all surprising, given the current backdrop.

As we noted this month, former President Trump’s persistent racializing of the origins of the virus that has now killed more than 535,000 people nationwide put a target on the backs of Asian Americans.

Racism, from the colonial-era genocide of Native Americans to the new nation’s constitutional embrace of race-based slavery to our present de facto segregated schools and institutional biases, is not just our history but part of our national character. It is a poison for which we have never been able to find an antidote. In this moment, the “other” are people of Asian descent, who solely because of their physical appearance are being blamed irrationally for the spread of a virus.

We’d like to offer a menu of policy proposals to help address the problem, but to be honest, that feels futile. How do you craft a program that would keep another Dylann Roof from walking into a Black church and killing nine people simply because they are Black? Or a white supremacist from walking into a Pittsburgh synagogue to shoot dead 11 people, as police accuse Robert Bowers of doing? Or Patrick Crusius from driving 11 hours to an El Paso Walmart, where police accuse him of opening fire on mostly Latino customers and staff, killing 23 people and wounding 25 more?

Yes, there are interventions that can be done, anti-violence programs that can be better funded, more education about diverse people and cultures to break down the walls behind which fear and suspicion turn into irrational hatred. But it’s a powerful poison, this racism.

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Such acts of racist violence are the end product of a personal processing of myriad influences, including individual experiences and societal norms. When a sitting president gives a wink and a nod to white nationalists, when popular movies, television shows and other media stereotype certain racial groups and ethnicities, when a dominant culture of whiteness can’t bring itself to understand the historical heft of that culture — it wasn’t so long ago that people traded postcards depicting the lynchings of Black men — then racism will persist.

Lately the hate has been directed against Asian Americans, but they’ve been targeted before, from the immigration ban imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 through the herding of Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II to the murder of Vincent Chin by Detroit autoworkers angry over which country was selling more cars. It’s a long history. And the perpetrators are not always white men. Our fears and hatreds are functions of being human.

Our whole history of racial animosity, in fact, is long and staggeringly persistent, complicated and omnipresent. But after the anguish of the moment, the mouthing of the right words of rejection of racism and violence and the need for tolerance, we’ll still be who we are: a society in which racism festers, guns are ubiquitous, misogyny persists, violence seems inevitable and lessons stubbornly refuse to be learned.