A presidential trip to Atlanta, Georgia originally intended to promote federal Covid-19 recovery efforts instead focused largely on the killing of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at Emory University on Friday, following Tuesday’s mass shootings that targeted three Atlanta-area spas. Although the targeted businesses were Asian-owned and largely staffed by Asian and Asian American women, federal and local law enforcement have been hesitant to say the shootings were racially motivated. Biden and Harris, however, tied the attack directly to an increase in violence against people of Asian descent across the United States.
“Too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying, waking up each morning the past year feeling their safety and the safety of their loved ones are at stake,” Biden said. “They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated, and harassed. They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed.”
“It’s been a year of living in fear for their lives just to walk down the street,” he said.
As Vox’s Terry Nguyen has reported, violence against Asian Americans has increased in the last year. “In 16 of America’s biggest cities, the number of reported anti-Asian hate crimes increased nearly 150 percent in 2020, according to an analysis from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at CSU San Bernardino,” Nguyen wrote. “Certain Asian community members — women and elderly people — also appear to be more vulnerable than others to attacks and harassment.”
Much of this violence has been blamed on racist rhetoric and xenophobia that has accompanied the spread of the coronavirus, which scientists believe originated in China. According to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization that tracks anti-Asian sentiment, there have been at least 3,795 anti-Asian incidents — both physical and verbal — in the United States since March 2020.
Harris said Friday that it has been “people with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate,” a statement seen as a reference to Republican members of Congress and the Trump administration — including former President Donald Trump — who have used derogatory language to describe the coronavirus, including calling it the “kung flu.”
Harris also described the history of racism against people of Asian descent in America, from 19th century exclusion laws that sharply limited Chinese immigration, to the internment camps where Japanese Americans were held in the 1940s. She said this history has led to deep-seated bias and is part of what has given rise to recent violence.
And she specifically highlighted the nearly 3,800 reported incidents of assault and harassment against Asian Americans — two-thirds of which targeted women — while Biden said that many incidents go unreported.
“There are simply some core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans. One of them is standing together against hate, against racism — the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation,” Biden said.
And addressing the fact the the shooting has brought together concerns about gun violence and misogyny as well as racism, Biden also referred to shootings as “another example of public health crisis, of gun violence in this country.”
He named two pieces of legislation — the Violence Against Women Act, which was recently renewed by the House of Representatives, and the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would expand federal hate crime laws and require expedited federal review of coronavirus-related hate crimes — as needing rapid approval. Both bills are pending in Congress. Beyond legislation, he added, a cultural shift is also necessary to end the targeting of people based on race and gender.
An investigation into the Atlanta shooting is ongoing
The White House’s remarks came as authorities continue their investigation into the 21-year-old suspect in the killings. He is being investigated for eight counts of murder, but it has not yet been determined whether he will also be charged under a new hate crime law in Georgia.
The state’s new hate crime law was enacted last summer, after Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was gunned down by neighborhood vigilantes while he was out for a run. His death was captured on video, and the white men who killed him were charged with murder.
At the time, Georgia was one of just four states to not have a hate crime penalty. Now, although Georgia still lacks a standalone hate crime charge, one can be added to another charge — in this case, murder — to increase the punishment. The law applies if the crime targeted someone based on sex, gender, race, religion, national origin, sexuality, or a disability. If a person is convicted of a felony, the additional charge would add at least two years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Law enforcement officials in Cherokee County, the site of two of the three shootings, drew some criticism after a sheriff’s deputy said that the alleged shooter’s stated motivation was not racism, but rather the eradication of sexual temptation. Advocates say that the association of Asian women and Asian-owned spas with sexual temptation is rooted in historic racism, fetishization, and misogyny.
As Vox’s Li Zhou has written, “attacks against Asian Americans can’t be divorced from race and gender”:
The central problem with this stereotype is that it dehumanizes Asian American women and reduces them solely to sexual objects. That dehumanization, in turn, perpetuates violence toward these groups, and condones it.
This dynamic, coupled with the pervasiveness of the “model minority myth,” which seeks to drive a wedge between minority groups and treats the Asian American experience as an exceptional and homogenous one, renders the pain and violence that Asian American women endure invisible.
“Dehumanization creates a climate that makes violence excusable,” says Morgan Dewey, the development coordinator for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Forty-one to 61 percent of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime. This is significantly higher than any other ethnic group.”
If Georgia prosecutors do not bring hate crime charges, however, the alleged shooter could still face federal hate crime charges. According to the Associated Press, federal investigators have not yet acquired enough evidence to pursue those charges. The bar is high, and generally requires explicit articulation of hateful motivations such as professed white supremacist beliefs.
In an interview with NPR on Thursday, Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said his team was supporting local law enforcement, and echoed officials in Cherokee County, saying the FBI does not have evidence the shootings were a racist attack.
“While the motive remains still under investigation at the moment, it does not appear that the motive was racially motivated,” Wray said. “But I really would defer to the state and local investigation on that for now.”
That same day, however, Atlanta’s Deputy Police Chief Charles Hampton said his team has not ruled out a possible hate crime classification in a news conference.
“Nothing is off the table for our investigation,” he said.
The Atlanta investigation is separate from that in Cherokee County, according to an Atlanta police spokesperson.
The alleged shooter is being held in Cherokee County’s jail, and faces a minimum life sentence if convicted of even one murder; he has been charged with eight counts. Georgia also still has the death penalty, but prosecutors have not yet said whether they will seek that.
According to a separate AP report, some local leaders are calling for the hate crime designation. Democratic state Sen. Michelle Au, who is of Chinese descent, said that the charge would bring visibility to the ways that Asian Americans are targeted.
“People feel like they’re getting gaslighted because they see it happen every day,” said Au. “They feel very clearly that it is racially motivated, but it’s not pegged or labeled that way. And people feel frustrated by that lack of visibility and that aspect being ignored.”
“It is important that the law calls things what they are,” said Republican state Rep. Chuck Efstration. “It’s important for victims, and it’s important for society.”
A hate crime investigation would also require additional data to be collected. Advocates told the AP that could lead to increased resources aimed at investigating and preventing future hate crimes.