After Georgia Attacks, Asian-Americans Demand Serious Action on Bias

By John Eligon, Thomas Fuller and Jill Cowan

Amid fear, sadness and pain, the shootings in the Atlanta area have generated anger over the country’s longstanding failure to address anti-Asian discrimination.

Brittany Tabora and Ina Padua at a march in Washington on Wednesday in response to the shootings in Georgia that left eight dead, six of them women of Asian descent.
Brittany Tabora and Ina Padua at a march in Washington on Wednesday in response to the shootings in Georgia that left eight dead, six of them women of Asian descent.Credit...Shuran Huang for The New York Times

Video clips of disturbing attacks on the street. Insults hurled by politicians. Derogatory graffiti scrawled on businesses.

For most of the last year, Asian-Americans have sounded the alarm over the rising discrimination they have experienced and witnessed, fueled in part by racist language and false claims about the coronavirus by former President Donald J. Trump and other public officials. Celebrities, activists and influencers on social media have implored people to stop the hate against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Then came the fatal shootings in Georgia of eight people, six of them women of Asian descent.

Amid fear, sadness and pain, the carnage has evoked another emotion among some Asian-Americans: anger over the country’s longstanding failure to take discrimination against them seriously.

Some scholars and activists said Tuesday’s massacre was unsurprising after public officials and popular culture have for years downplayed the dangers of bias and stereotypes against Asians.

Although Asian-Americans, like other minority groups, have endured a long tradition of deadly violence, the threats and discrimination they continue to face are often trivialized as harmless insults. In many cases, some said, people are reluctant to even acknowledge that attacks against Asian-Americans could be racially motivated, as happened on Wednesday when a law enforcement official in Georgia seemed to dismiss racial animus as a motive in the shootings.

Instead, he said the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, who is white, was having “a really bad day” and cited Mr. Long’s statement that he was driven by a sex addiction, and not racial bias.

ImageLaure Vila visiting a makeshift memorial outside Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday.
Laure Vila visiting a makeshift memorial outside Gold Spa in Atlanta on Wednesday.Credit...Lynsey Weatherspoon for The New York Times

Even when anti-Asian violence is acknowledged, experts say, it is sometimes casually dismissed as an isolated episode, rather than a core part of the Asian-American story.

“There’s a tendency to not believe that violence against Asian-Americans is real,” said Angela Hsu, 52, a lawyer in suburban Atlanta. “It’s almost like you need something really, really jarring to make people believe that there is discrimination against Asian-Americans.”

Without a deeper, widespread understanding of, or belief in, the dangers that Asian-Americans face, it’s difficult for activists to marshal a concerted national push — in law enforcement, the media and the public — to fight anti-Asian racism, activists say.

Now many are hoping that the tragedy in Georgia ignites a more aggressive and tangible effort to weed out hate against their communities.

Ms. Hsu, the president of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association, for example, called for investigators to approach Mr. Long’s account, that the shootings were driven by a sex addiction, with skepticism.

“The truth could be much more complicated,” she said, adding that pinning down the role that race may have played was important. “It’s an opportunity to talk about the larger issue. It isn’t discussed enough.”

Perceptions of anti-Asian discrimination are shaped by complex factors. There’s the vast diversity of what it means to be Asian-American: The population comprises those whose families have been in the United States for generations and people who have come from dozens of countries under many different circumstances, including as refugees.

They have varying levels of education and English proficiency and can land at different places on the American political spectrum, sometimes depending on the issue. Some, particularly first-generation immigrants, are less inclined to call out racism, while their children might be more willing to speak up.

Angela Hsu, the president of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association, called for investigators to approach the theory that the shootings were driven simply by a sex addiction with skepticism. Credit...Nicole Craine for The New York Times

“I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve heard in the classroom, after many, many, many years of teaching, how my students will continuously say, ‘I never knew that this happened,’” she said.

There is also the stereotype that all people of Asian descent are economically and educationally successful, which can lead to the incorrect assumption that the discrimination they face can’t be that bad.

In fact, some of the Asian-Americans who have been subjected to the most vicious violence have been people living on the socioeconomic margins. They tend to be invisible to much of society, which only furthers a widespread dismissal of anti-Asian violence, said Chris J. Lee, 33, a founder of Plan A Magazine, an online journal focused on Asian-American culture and politics.

“The types of people who get killed, like people who work at massage parlors, elderly Asians picking up cans for a living — none of us really know these people,” he said.

Demonstrators gathered outside of Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta on Thursday.Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The marginalization of Asian-Americans has deep roots.

Chinese immigrants who built railways and mined gold in the 19th century were shunted into Chinatowns in San Francisco and other cities, redlined by financial institutions and often left to fend for themselves.

Further immigration from China was restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first immigration law targeting working-class immigrants from a specific country. It was followed in 1917 by the most restrictive immigration law in the nation’s history, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, which blocked immigrants from Istanbul all the way to Jakarta and beyond, nearly eliminating all arrivals from some of the most populous areas of the planet — the South Asian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

Japanese residents in the United States were for decades kept out of white neighborhoods through covenants written into real estate deeds; tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.

    • Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. The suspect’s motives are under investigation, but Asian communities across the United States are on alert because of a surge in attacks against Asian-Americans over the past year.
    • A torrent of hate and violence against Asian-Americans around the U.S. began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Community leaders say the bigotry was spurred by the rhetoric of former President Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.”
    • In New York, a wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
    • In January, an 84-year-old man from Thailand was violently slammed to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death at a hospital two days later. The attack, captured on video, has become a rallying cry.

When immigration laws were liberalized in the 1960s, immigrants from Asia were allowed into the U.S. in unprecedented numbers.

Asian ethnic groups, though distinct from one another, have at times been lumped together under the umbrella of an Asian-American identity. But the anti-Asian violence that has come during the pandemic seems to have solidified a greater sense of solidarity among a group that is diverse in income, religion and culture, said Will Lex Ham, an actor who has helped lead a campaign of awareness of violence against Asians.

“As long as we share the same physical features, we are being treated the same in this country,” Mr. Ham said.

In the wake of attacks on older people in Asian neighborhoods in California, some community leaders have demanded an increased police presence. Others have said that simply adding law enforcement officers was not a solution.

Some are pushing Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint an Asian-American to be California’s attorney general.

Amy Ratanapakdee lighting incense in memory of her father, Vicha Ratanapakdee, who died as a result of injuries from an attack in San Francisco.Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

An Asian-American as the state’s top law enforcement official is needed to build trust, “particularly when it comes to what have been strained relationships between law enforcement and immigrant communities and communities of color,” David Chiu, a member of the California State Assembly, said during a news conference on Wednesday.

In the Atlanta area, where the Asian community has grown in recent years and become more politically influential, the murders have reignited anxieties that may have been subsiding for some people as an end to the pandemic is in sight. When the pandemic began, Ms. Hsu, the lawyer, said she almost expected that people would hurl insults at her because she is Chinese-American. In recent weeks, she had let her guard down, she said.

“We’re coming out of the pandemic, there’s a new president, we’re not hearing ‘Kung Flu’ and ‘China Virus’ every other word,” she said, referring to some of the derogatory terms that Mr. Trump used for the coronavirus. “I was really lured into thinking it’s sort of safe to go outside again.”

Now, she is back on high alert.

Suraiya Sharker, a community organizer with the Atlanta chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said that after the shootings, she received calls from several members of her organization who were in tears.

Ms. Sharker, 22, is particularly worried about her parents, who moved to the United States from Bangladesh when she was 4, because they are of the demographic particularly vulnerable to attacks. As first generation immigrants, their English is not perfect. They work in a fast-food restaurant in suburban Atlanta, where, Ms. Sharker said, a customer once threatened her father in a disagreement over the bill and customers have refused to be served by her mother because she wears a hijab.

But as much as she and other Asian-Americans are more cautious now, they are also more energized, she said.

“This,” she said, “has been an awakening for a lot of folks to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”