By Elie Mystal* – The Nation
There are lots of people working overtime to try to prove that the mass shooting of six Asian women wasn’t motivated by bigotry. It was
This week’s massacre of eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta was sadly predictable. From the moment Donald Trump started blaming the coronavirus pandemic on “China,” everybody paying attention knew that his rhetoric would result in violence against the many, varied Asian communities all across this country. Anti-Asian bigotry is nothing new in this country, but to distract from his own incompetence, Trump was all too happy to add fuel to that always smoldering fire.
Increased violence toward Asian Americans throughout the pandemic is not theoretical, and it’s not anecdotal. It was a documented fact long before this week’s mass murder. Hate crimes against Asian Americans living in major cities rose 150–200 percent in 2020, even though hate crimes overall fell as people were cooped up indoors. Violence against Asian people has been the other epidemic during this past year.
That surge of violence doesn’t get talked about as a “crisis,” in part because the mainstream white media is complicit with the forces encouraging the violence. I wrote, last year, about how repeating Trump’s racist-slur nickname for Covid-19 would get people killed. I knew that would happen not because I’m Mr. Cleo but because whenever leaders blame an “out group” for a disease they don’t understand, somebody goes off and starts killing members of the out group. It’s happened in every plague throughout history.
All media—print, TV, and social—continued to give Trump unfettered access and opportunity to make racist statements that put vulnerable communities at risk. Lying about an election he had already lost got Trump kicked off of Twitter. But slandering Asian communities for nine months was just, what, “adhering to the terms and conditions of the user agreement”?
You have to understand what the media has already done to understand what is happening now with the coverage of Robert Aaron Long, the suspected mass murderer of these Asian women. The mainstream white media has a vested interest in making Long out to be anything other than the most likely outcome of their long-standing complicity in anti-Asian rhetoric.
Long is white, so he was already going to benefit from every bit of character rehabilitation this society has to offer. The cops report that Long said his motives were not “racial in nature,” and the media has run with that.
But let’s examine those cops. First of all, they took Long alive, which is not a privilege usually accorded to suspected mass murderers of color. Cherokee County Police spokesman Capt. Jay Baker says that Long saw the massage parlors as a “temptation” that he wanted to “eliminate.” And then Baker said, “He was pretty much fed up and had been kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.”
It should surprise no one that the officer who characterized the massacre of eight people as a “bad day” for the shooter has also adopted Trumpian racist rhetoric. Internet sleuths later found that Baker had posted pictures of T-shirts on Facebook calling the coronavirus imported virus from chy-na.
There is simply no reason to think that cops as racist as this are accurately assessing the motives of the suspect. In fact, the police and the rest of the mainstream media are not reporting on other statements Long allegedly made. One survivor, interviewed by a South Korean newspaper, says Long screamed, “I will kill all the Asians!” before opening fire at one location. What the suspect said while shooting people seems at least as relevant as what the suspect said after shooting people. But I bet Officer Chy-na over here thinks interviewing witnesses in their native language is “woke supremacy” run amok.
Even if the cops are merely reporting what Long himself said to them, there’s no reason to think Long is accurately representing his true motives for the crime. Why does the media constantly allow racists to self-define the contours of its own racism? You don’t see the media reflexively adopting the suspected criminal’s narrative in other crimes. Nobody writes: “Man claims dog made him kill eight people, hunt for dog ongoing.” Only white men get to do something racist, claim it wasn’t racially motivated, and have the media react with a general “Welp, guess it wasn’t racism then. Phew. Onto the real motive.”
This impulse to exclude racism also stems from the wholly white belief that people are either all racist all the time or “don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Racism is more nuanced than that. It’s entirely possible for people to be motivated by racial animus and a bunch of other factors as well. Here, it clearly seems that Long was motivated not only by racism against Asians but also a toxic hate for women—and that the two forces were so closely fused they can’t be disentangled. There is, for instance, enough scholarship on the long and nasty history of the exoticization of Asian women to know that it’s simply foolish and ignorant to discount the racialized aspects of this crime. If Long were purely motivated by a desire to “eliminate” “temptation,” a random sampling of sex work in Atlanta would not result in six Asian women dead. That Long was targeting Asian women is evidenced by the body count.
But white media gonna white. Having spent a year fueling anti-Asian hate, it makes sense that they’re now trying to recontextualize anti-Asian violence as something else. A cop at one of the press conferences offered the unsolicited observation that two white people were murdered along with the six Asian women, as if his catching some white people in the crossfire somehow absolved Long of racist intent. Some people seem achingly desperate to have this crime be anything other than a racist hate crime.
I guess I understand why. There are (white) people in the media who have largely pinned their entire careers on the idea that racism either doesn’t exist or isn’t as dangerous as people of color say it is. There are people who have spent the last two weeks telling you that the most dangerous threat to America is not white domestic terrorism but the canceling of certain Dr. Seuss books (which, the astute reader will remember, were primarily decommissioned for their anti-Asian caricatures). So when angry white boys kill, their media apologists contort themselves into pretzels to come up with some other “grievance” behind the violence, other than the racial one staring everybody in the face.
You didn’t need a crystal ball to see this eruption of violence against Asians coming. You didn’t need to be “woke” or sensitive to the history of anti-Asian stereotypes. You just had to listen to white media for the past year and know what white men are capable of.
*Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent—covering the courts, the criminal justice system, and politics—and the force behind the magazine’s monthly column “Objection!” He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. He can be followed @ElieNYC.
Anti-Asian hate: not just a pandemic problem
For many Asian Americans, it was further evidence that crimes against their community are not being taken seriously, even as they surge. Police said that the suspect “gave no indicators” that his actions were racially motivated, talking of a sex addiction and saying he was trying “to take out that temptation”. It is hard to think of language more dehumanising: