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When hate in a crime is clear, the gaslighting often follows

When confronted with hateful violence carried out by white men, police and society search for some other motive — any other motive — to explain it.

A woman holds her phone during a candlelight vigil in Garden Grove, Calif., on Wednesdy to unite against the recent spate of violence targeting Asian people and to express grief and outrage after Tuesday's shooting that left eight people dead in Atlanta, Georgia, including at least six Asian women.APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

Racism and gaslighting always seem to go hand in hand.

So the sting of the denial that racism was clearly behind the horrific killing spree that left eight people — six of them Asian women — dead at three spas in Georgia this week was infuriatingly familiar.

And so was the slack cut for Robert Aaron Long, the suspect who police said admitted to gunning them down. It was wholly unsurprising that law enforcement officials not only say it’s too early to classify the massacre as a hate crime, but they also base that stance on the word of the suspect, reality be damned.


“He claims it was not racially motivated,” said Cherokee County Captain Jay Baker Wednesday. “He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places. And it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

Baker added: “Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.”

It is just the latest example in America of the tendency by police and society, when confronted with hateful violence carried out by white men, to search for some other motive — any other motive — to explain it. It’s like a presumption against calling an obvious hate crime a hate crime until all other possibilities are ruled out. Call it the “bad day” presumption.

That hesitancy to face the bigotry that some of us — people of color and women specifically — do not have the privilege of being able to ignore is not limited to police. Even President Biden seemed to choose his words carefully Wednesday, saying at the White House that “the investigation is ongoing and the question of motivation is still to be determined.” He did add that “Asian Americans are very concerned,” and called the recent spate of hate crimes committed against Asian people across the country “very, very troublesome.”


But there is nothing wrong with saying that the brutal targeting and slaying of Asian women, at a time when thousands of people of Asian descent have reported coming under attack during a pandemic for which they have been unfoundedly scapegoated, is appalling and cannot be tolerated. It is not out of bounds to denounce the hyper-sexualization of Asian women, or decry the untold number of Asian women who are sex trafficked in the United States — the second-largest racial or ethnic group subject to trafficking after Latinas — facts that may bear on the violence that unfolded in the Atlanta area this week.

And there is certainly nothing wrong with investigating violence that reeks of racism combined with misogyny as a hate crime. In fact, the failure to speak honestly about race and gender only serves to fuel the very gaslighting that makes it so much easier for the calls for racial justice to fall on deaf ears, and harder for victims of hate crimes to come forward and be believed.

The law enforcement officials could have taken a cue from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said in a CNN interview, about Long’s denial of being motivated by race: “This is a man who murdered eight people in cold blood, so it is very difficult to believe what he said.”


Yet, in America, white men get the benefit of the “bad day” presumption time and time again.

We saw it in Donald Trump’s sympathetic defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, the man charged with fatally shooting two Black Lives Matter protesters and wounding another in Kenosha, Wis. Rittenhouse “fell and then they very violently attacked him,” Trump said of the self-described militia member who faces murder charges — but was released on cash bail with the assistance of a crowdfunding effort that drew support even from actor Rick Schroder.

We saw it when, after Patrick Crusius was charged with killing 20 people and wounding 26 more in an El Paso Walmart in an attack police say was motivated by anti-immigrant animus, Trump and Governor Greg Abbott of Texas were quick to blame mental illness.

And we see it now, in the avoidance of facing up to hate and calling it what it is. Conducting a thorough investigation is crucial. But that can be done without turning a blind eye to the scourge of hatred that so many of us cannot unsee.

Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at Follow her @KimberlyEAtkins.