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Atlanta-area spa shootings highlight knotted intersection of sexism and racism, scholars say

Activists leave flowers during a demonstration against violence against women and Asians.
Activists in Atlanta leave flowers on Thursday during a demonstration calling out violence against women and Asians following Tuesday night’s shooting in the Atlanta-area that left eight dead, including six women of Asian descent.
(Megan Varner / Getty Images)

To some, it was about race. To others, gender. Still more, class.

The Atlanta-area rampage on Tuesday evening that left eight people dead has sparked heated public discussion over the killer’s disturbed motives. The attack showed links to recent cases of harassment and violence against both Asian Americans and women.

But scholars who study extremism and exploitation say that, in the temporary absence of an official motive, one conclusion is certain: The slayings cast a spotlight on the knotted intersection of various dangerous ideologies that cannot be readily untangled.

“People like clear and simple answers, and those answers wouldn’t be honest,” said Mia Bloom, a terrorism and extremism expert at Georgia State University. “We need to be open to an intersectionality: Killers can be racists and misogynists and suffer from mental illness all at once.”

Even before the Atlanta-area spa attacks that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, volunteer groups have sprung up to defend their Asian American communities in California.

Scholars agree that sexist ideology cannot be written off. The spa attacks follow a string of sexually motivated killings in recent years. Elliot Rodger, the man who killed six people and injured 14 others in a 2014 attack at UC Santa Barbara, had published a 137-page manifesto airing his grievances about women who seemed sexually disinterested in him.

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He and other recent male killers — including the 25-year-old who used a van to plow over 10 pedestrians in Toronto in 2018, and the 17-year-old who last year walked into a spa there with a machete and stabbed a woman to death — had ties to an online subculture of self-described involuntary celibates, shortened to “incels.”

Some message board users promote mass rape and use lewd terms to describe women, whom they say they feel fundamentally entitled to have sex with. Several have described seeking a psychological thrill from stalking women on sidewalks, making them quicken their pace. Incels also sometimes eulogize Rodger, the 2014 killer, and refer to violent acts against women as “going E.R.”

Shootings at three Atlanta-area spas prompted Biden to change plans for his Georgia trip and schedule meetings with Asian American leaders.

Robert Aaron Long, the 21-year-old suspect charged with murder for the deaths, was almost certainly not a typical incel. Former housemates told news outlets that Long did not spend much time on the internet and did not even own a smartphone. On the surface, his stated motive even appeared to be the opposite: He attributed his killings to a “sex addiction” — not celibacy — and said he wanted to eliminate the temptation caused by the establishments.

But Bloom said men’s motives are linked, however, in that they first cast blame on women for triggering unwanted desires within them, whether or not those desires are met. Such victim-blaming evades responsibility and instead focuses on the idea that women are the source of the conflict, she said.

“That kind of weaponized misogyny — the idea that women are to be punished for what a man is feeling — we’ve seen this relentlessly,” she said.

A statement released by the suspect’s church said that the church leaders “categorically reject” the notion that women are responsible for men’s sin against them, and that Long’s actions “are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible.”

“The shootings were a total repudiation of our faith and practice, and such actions are completely unacceptable and contrary to the gospel,” the statement added.

Asian American women bear a particular burden at the intersection of sexism and racism. They report harassment episodes more than twice as often as Asian American men, according to research, and have taken to social media this week to describe decades of feeling like hypersexualized objects: exotic, petite and docile.

A common thread among Asian American women’s anecdotes: being taunted with the 30-year-old Hollywood reference, “me love you long time,” before they were old enough to understand it.

“For bodies of color — especially sexualized ones — there are always multiple layers to the exploitation, the oppression,” said Harleen Singh, the director of the Women’s Studies Research Center and a professor of South Asian studies at Brandeis University. “We can’t be presentist about this particular crime. That twinned marginalization is important to understand.”

If you see someone harassing or being violent toward another person, what are your options to act and intervene safely? Plus more tips on how to be a good ally.

Bloom said mainstream media are often guilty of prematurely reducing crimes to a singular motive. Reuters faced backlash earlier this week for the headline, “Sex addiction, not racial hatred, may have driven suspect in Georgia spa shootings: law enforcement,” which critics said echoed the suspect’s preferred narrative, as stated by police.

Reuters later softened the headline to “Motive in Georgia spa shootings may not be race, but Asian-Americans fearful,” which did not muster much support either. Other outlets made similar blunders.

“We don’t let mass casualty shooters diagnose themselves,” Bloom said, noting reports of a witness who said Long shouted a plan to kill Asians. “As more comes to light, we’ll have a clearer view of the motive.”

Asian Americans have reported an uptick in race-based harassment since the start of the pandemic, studies show, ranging from vandalization of Chinese restaurants to violent attacks. Researchers see former President Trump’s efforts to dub the coronavirus “Chinese virus” and even “kung flu” as contributors to the rise.

A close-up of notes from written text.
A close-up of former President Trump’s notes shows the word “corona” crossed out and replaced with “Chinese” in remarks for his coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 19, 2020.
(Jabin Botsford / Washington Post)

Christine Bacareza Balance, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Cornell University, said she was “sadly not surprised” by the Georgia spa shootings, given the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes that fit into “a longer history of anti-Asian violence.”

During a congressional hearing in Washington on Thursday morning, Erika Lee, a professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, also emphasized that the mistreatment of Asian Americans isn’t a contemporary development.

“We’ve heard in the past 24 hours many describe anti-Asian discrimination and racial violence as un-American,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is very American.”

On Wednesday, a captain from Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said it was too early to declare the Atlanta-area attack a hate crime and instead described the suspect as feeling “fed up” and having “a really bad day.”

Bloom and other scholars joined a chorus of outcries.

“There’s a lot going on in this case. But this is one thing we do know,” she said. “There was hate.”


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