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Call the Atlanta killings what they are: racial terrorism

Even if the alleged killer had a sexual addiction, it was racially motivated. Stop rationalizing supremacy.

Reports of attacks, primarily against Asian American elders, have spiked in recent months, fueled, activists believe, by racist references to COVID-19 made by Donald Trump and others.
Reports of attacks, primarily against Asian American elders, have spiked in recent months, fueled, activists believe, by racist references to COVID-19 made by Donald Trump and others.ERIN SCOTT

Robert Aaron Long is a terrorist.

He told police he went on a killing spree, murdering eight people, most of them women of Asian descent, because of his sex addiction. The Asian massage spas he targeted, officials said, were “a temptation that he wanted to eliminate.”

He’s been charged with murder and assault. It doesn’t appear to be racially motivated, some officials say. Some believe it’s too early in the investigation to call it a hate crime. Even the president and vice president are shying away from motives.

Domestic terrorism, as described by the FBI, is violent, criminal acts committed to further ideological goals. This can stem from political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.

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Long prioritized his sexual morality over human life. He fetishized Asian women. He apparently believed he had the right to kill whomever tempted him to stray from his faith. If this is not a hate crime, laws need to be rewritten. If we cannot see this mass shooting as terrorism, we need to redefine it.

Stop calling him “the 21-year-old,” as if his youth is an excuse. Stop digging into how he was super nice, “nerdy,” and “big into religion.” Call Long a murderer, a terrorist, a sexist, and a racist. Care more about his victims, like Delaina Ashley Yaun and Xiaojie Yan.

A mourner left flowers at a makeshift memorial outside Young’s Asian Massage near Acworth, Ga..
A mourner left flowers at a makeshift memorial outside Young’s Asian Massage near Acworth, Ga..NICOLE BUCHANAN/The New York Times

They were alive. They had dreams. They were loved by somebody who is missing them today.

And yet, Georgia officials seem to want to soften their killer.

“He was pretty much fed up, at the end of his rope and this was a very bad day for him and this is what he did,” said a Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Captain Jay Baker.

A very bad day? The sympathy for the devil is real.

Over five years ago, when Dylann Roof murdered nine worshipers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., folk were hesitant to call him a terrorist.

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Back then, I wrote, “I guess people shy away from calling acts like this terrorism because that would mean white supremacy in itself is a terrorist act. And we live in a country that operates on systemic racism.”

This is still true. And like all forms of racism against nonwhite people, America likes to erase the reality. Pretend progress is easier than actually taking into account the violence supremacy inflicts.

And when the victims are women, well, it’s been a year since police killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville and there is no justice to be had. America, like the rest of the world, devalues girls and women — especially girls and women of color.

Women of Asian descent are no exception. Almost a quarter of Asian American and Pacific Islander women in America have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lives, according to a CDC 2010-2012 report on intimate partner and sexual violence.

Long was specific in the kind of temptation he targeted for destruction: Asian spas.

The hypersexualization of Asian women in Hollywood, pornography, and historic novels, combined with the stereotype of submissiveness, contribute to the fetishization that leads to sexual violence and trafficking of women and girls of Asian descent. These tropes and violence date back to World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, and places of US military occupation, like South Korea.

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Add this violent, sexual bias to the past year of anti-Asian assaults stirred up by Donald Trump empowering xenophobic, racist ideals around COVID-19, and the truth is undeniable. It’s imperative we call racism exactly what it is: racism.

Over the last year, Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that has documented incidents of anti-Asian discrimination during the pandemic, has received nearly 3,800 accounts of anti-Asian assaults from March 19, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021.

Last week, President Biden condemned the hate against Asian Americans as he addressed the nation on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic.

“Too often, we have turned against one another,” Biden said. “A mask, the easiest thing to do to save lives, sometimes, it divides us, states pitted against one another, instead of working with each other, vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans, who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated.”

“At this very moment, so many of them, our fellow Americans, they’re on the front lines of this pandemic trying to save lives, and still, still they’re forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America. It’s wrong. It’s un-American. And it must stop,” he added.

But how, when legislation and law enforcement rarely work in our favor?

Prayers and condolences won’t end it. Neither will shying away from firmly defining something as racist. As a Black woman, I know things can be sexist and racist at the same time. In fact, they often are — each are core values of white supremacy.

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Long’s accused crimes may not be related to coronavirus, but they are most certainly anti-Asian and anti-women. This is not by coincidence.

We can’t afford to have media who want to know more about the killer’s life than they do the victims who are no longer here. We cannot keep paying police to safely arrest a man after a killing tour of Asian spas and dismiss it as a young man with a sex addiction while George Floyd’s character is on trial as a victim of a police lynching.

Until we start recognizing racial terror as terrorism, the very bad days won’t end for Black people and people of color in America. We’re playing a game of Groundhog Day with white supremacy and it’s killing us.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.