Racist hatred doesn’t necessarily identify itself with a white hood. Not everyone leaves a manifesto laying out plans to target a particular group. Motives aren’t always waiting to be discovered in a trail of incendiary tweets or posts.
Sometimes racism doesn’t reveal itself until the shooting stops — and the excuses start.
When a white man allegedly murdered eight people, including six Asian women, at three Atlanta-area spas Tuesday, it was a hate crime. It was not, as Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office callously said, the result of the suspect having “a really bad day.” Baker, who sounded more like a defense attorney, seemed to accept the suspect’s claim that the shootings at the Asian-owned businesses were not racially motivated. And it turns out Baker himself now has to answer for touting racist T-shirts blaming China for the coronavirus on his now-deleted Facebook page. On Thursday, Baker was taken off the case.
What happened in Georgia comes at a perilous time, with anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander violence and harassment spiking nationwide. Stop AAPI Hate has tracked nearly 3,800 verbal, physical, and online attacks and civil rights violations between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, and said that this represents “a fraction of the number of hate incidents” because victims don’t always come forward.
In Boston, such crimes have jumped 133 percent in the past year, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. As early as January 2020, the city’s Asian communities were subjected to racist backlash as the coronavirus began to spread. Long before the pandemic forced many businesses to close, Chinatown was suffering a sharp economic downturn due to hate and ignorance.
Of course, COVID-19 fears are just another excuse. America has never needed a reason to ostracize, scapegoat, and endanger any racial or ethnic group whose existence is deemed a threat to white supremacy.
On the same day that Georgia law enforcement officials downplayed racist motives in the Atlanta-area massacre, federal intelligence agencies released an alarming report about the ongoing spread of domestic terrorism. “Racially motivated violent extremists, such as white supremacists, were most likely to conduct mass casualty attacks against civilians while militias typically targeted law enforcement and government personnel and facilities,” the report said. “Lone offenders or small cells of extremists were more likely than organizations to carry out attacks.”
President Biden ordered the report after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, another deadly event some have falsely claimed was not driven by white supremacist violence. FBI officials are as clear about the motives behind that unprecedented siege as AAPI communities are about what fueled the Georgia massacre.
Former President Trump stoked hatred when he blamed China, in derogatory terms, for the pandemic to deflect from his own lethally mangled federal response. Yet it was the lack of universal condemnation, especially from his fellow Republicans, that gave his hate room to thrive. Trump emboldened racists, but prominent conservatives’ refusal to castigate his actions energized them.
Still, like other forms of racism, anti-Asian hatred existed long before Trump. It’s garnering attention now, yet even when it’s not making headlines, Asian communities live every day with its venom. For many, what happened in Georgia is an isolated horror; for AAPI people, it’s the inevitable result of decades of unchallenged prejudice, combined with the sexual objectification of Asian women.
Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen said the shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny, and xenophobia.” Passed last June, Georgia’s hate crime law includes increased penalties for crimes motivated by gender or sex. Denying this redress only adds to the trauma of survivors and their communities who feel unseen and unheard.
(One day after the killings, the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act; 172 Republicans voted against it.)
After an avowed white supremacist murdered nine African Americans in a historically Black church in South Carolina in 2015, some conservatives claimed the massacre was an anti-Christian attack on religious liberty, despite the shooter’s own racist manifesto. That refutation is happening again, as racism is pushed aside as a motive for the killings of six Asian women and two others in Georgia.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” James Baldwin said. Once again, this nation has an opportunity to change in the face of horror. Unfortunately, the only thing in America more abundant than racism is the willingness to deny its existence.