US outrage over Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric took a new turn this week after shootings at spas near Atlanta

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This week, shootings at three spas near the US city of Atlanta, Georgia left eight people dead. Six of those people were women of Asian descent.

The public did what it does best when incidents of violence form an unmistakable pattern.

They prayed for the victims, called for gun control and, most of all, sought answers on the perpetrator’s motivation — any shred of detail that could help them understand whether it would happen again and whether, next time, it would happen to them.

This is how a 23-minute press conference became the subject of national outrage, the spark lifting a long-simmering conversation into a full-blown debate.

The 21-year-old man charged with murder told police he was suffering from a “sexual addiction” and had frequented the businesses he targeted.

“It’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” a County Sheriff told reporters.

“It’s still early on … but the indicators right now are that it might not be [racially motivated].”

The Sheriff’s spokesman explained the man’s mindset as “pretty much fed up. He was at the end of his rope”.

“Yesterday was a really bad day for him,” the spokesman said.

“And this is what he did.”

Americans are calling for hate crime charges

It’s not hard to see why the police’s framing — the cavalier tone, the haphazard humanisation, the apparent disregard for the greater dynamics at play — became a national flashpoint.

A mugshot of a Caucasian man with dark blonde hair wearing a military-style vest
Suspect Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested in connection with the killing of eight people, many of them women of Asian descent.(Crisp County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

The day after the murders, the shooting consumed four of the top-five trending slots on Twitter.

The press conference was played and replayed on cable news, dissected by analysts and activists alike. Thousands marched through the streets of major cities, calling for the man to be charged with a hate crime on top of the eight counts of murder.

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The obvious thing has already been said, but it bears repeating here: We’ve all had bad days, and we can all agree that bad days aren’t a licence to kill.

But there’s a broader frustration here, too, one that’s trickier to nail down in words. It’s fuelled by the disconnect between the police’s reading of the US hate crime laws and the lived reality of anyone who’s experienced hate.

Conviction of a US hate crime rests on the rigidity of a bridge between motivation and action. It requires crystal clear evidence that A (racism, misogyny, religious prejudice) led to B (violence).

But the ability to combat hate — to prevent it from occurring in the first place — depends on something far more fragile: societal recognition of its presence.

Advocates say America needs that step before they can begin to understand, and thus address, its root causes.

The more we talk about the reasons that hate develops, the more hate is going to transcend tidy characterisation. That makes it all the more deserving of our attention.

Anti-Asian rhetoric and violence increased during the pandemic

Asian Americans didn’t need a formal definition of hate crimes to know that something like this could happen.

Several police officers talking to a man in New York City's Chinatown neighbourhood
Police have been deployed in cities across the US to ensure Asian American residents are protected in the wake of the Georgia shootings.(AP: Mary Altaffer)

Not even 48 hours before the killings, a state lawmaker in Georgia delivered a floor speech imploring her colleagues to recognise the fear Asian Americans were facing.

Just a week before, two federal Representatives introduced legislation designed to provide guidance on local law enforcement on accurately reporting hate crimes.

A national coalition dedicated to stopping hate against Asian Americans says it has received 3,800 reports of incidents in the past year. That’s a rise of nearly 150 per cent.

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Another report tracked a 900 per cent surge in hate speech on Twitter directed at China and those of Chinese descent.

Extensive reporting has established the link between this hate and the coronavirus, which likely originated in China.

The pandemic has claimed 538,000 American lives, and kept the country in various states of lockdown for more than a year.

A UN report released in October put the blame on political leaders, especially Republicans, who sought to connect the virus with Asia, which read like a way to shrug off domestic responsibility for curbing it.

According to the UN, no-one did more to legitimise violence than former president Donald Trump, who frequently used terms like “Wuhan virus” and “Kung Flu” in lines portraying his re-election campaign as the victim of some political plot.

Some of his supporters listened. A November poll found that 86 per cent of self-identified Republican voters said China was responsible for the pandemic’s damage.

And even though those voters couldn’t propel him to victory, Trump hasn’t let up on the rhetoric. He used the term “China virus” in an interview with Fox News on the night of the shooting.

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US leaders have long discriminated against Asian Americans

Historians say that associating a disease with a specific group of people is a common choice for scapegoating.

It’s especially effective if those in power are able to reaffirm a belief, subconscious or not, about threats to white power.

A man of Asian descent with his eyes closed lays his hand on his chest outside a massage parlour
People gathered to pay their respects to the victims who were murdered at the Georgia spas.(Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP: Curtis Compton)

That Trump’s rhetoric appears to be working may speak to greater American fears over China’s increasing global dominance.

Asian Americans have long been subjected to the “model minority” myth, which broadly associates those of Asian descent as reticent, industrious, and thus generally non-threatening.

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In addition to being inaccurate, the “model minority” myth was consciously developed in the 1800s to drive tensions between Asian Americans and African Americans.

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Both groups were brought to the US to provide the labour, with no intention of making them citizens.

Even while US leaders were recruiting Asian men to the US to build railroads, they passed laws aimed at discouraging them from staying and settling in.

The 1875 Page Act, for example, banned Asian women from entering the US on the grounds that they might reproduce.

The text of the law said their bodies could be used for “immoral purposes”.

Misogyny and racism are intertwined

Women of Asian descent are twice as likely to report hate than are Asian men, according to a national report.

Advocates say they’re more vulnerable to harassment because of, again, pernicious stereotypes.

Police tape erected in front of a massage parlour
Asian Americans have been warning for months that they were facing increasing hatred and violence during the pandemic.(Reuters: Chris Aluka Berry)

They say that when Asian women are depicted in mass media, which in itself is rare, it’s often in an over-sexualised, exoticized manner. They appear overly feminine, diminutive and docile.

In a piece for the Washington Post, writer Jezz Chung traces these tropes back to the Western patriarchy’s guilt over conquering Asian nations. Orientalism and imperialism go hand in hand.

“Violence isn’t always loud,” Chung writes.

“It’s not always an overt physical act we can call immediate attention to. Violence and harm seep into our collective lexicon — our catchphrases, our lyrics, our headlines — and sometimes we don’t feel its impact until we’re given permission to.”

America is not just taking that permission but seizing it, embracing the difficult first step of recognising hate for what it is and isn’t.

A “sexual addiction” doesn’t always preclude racist motivations. The desire to “remove a temptation” certainly doesn’t diminish misogynist tendencies.

White supremacy is a part of the conversation, as is the religious culture around sexual purity.

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The recent rhetoric of leaders like Donald Trump is as notable as America’s long legislative record on race. The pandemic slithers through every thread, tightening tensions at every twist and turn.

Change becomes possible only when we do the hard work of considering how these things become so connected that we fail to recognise them. Noticing is only the first step.

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