The Backstory: In Georgia, murders, misogyny and racism intertwined tragically

After dropping off flowers Jesus Estrella, left, and Shelby S., right, stand in support of the Asian and Hispanic community outside Youngs Asian Massage parlor where four people were killed, March 17, 2021, in Acworth, Ga. (Photo: Curtis Compton, Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

A white man is accused of murdering eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, at massage businesses this week in Atlanta.The debate quickly turned to whether this was a hate crime.

There is the legal definition of hate crime, which the Justice Department describes as motivation rooted in bias based on a victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. 

There is also the question of who gets to decide. In this case, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Wednesday that the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long of Woodstock, Georgia, told authorities that his actions were not racially motivated and that he had a sexual addiction and wanted to “eliminate his temptation.”

Then there is the reality. Violence against Asian Americans is increasing in this country. Asian American women are dangerously hypersexualized in our culture. And Asian American women are attacked more than twice as often as Asian American men.

“It’s not an either-or proposition. The racism and the misogyny and the violence are very much intertwined,” Elizabeth Kim, the chief operating officer of Restore NYC, a nonprofit that works to provide housing and economic solutions for survivors of trafficking, told our reporters. “I wouldn’t say we should pivot to say it is a crime only in sexual nature and not of a racial nature and vice-versa. I don’t think it’s fair right now to say it was one versus the other.” 

That’s what’s being lost in the debate over the shooter’s motivation. It can absolutely be more than one thing. Misogyny and racism are hard, if not impossible, to separate in a crime like this against Asian American women. 

Jane Mo, a USA TODAY video producer in Atlanta, has been reporting on the reaction in Atlanta’s Asian American community. She is of Korean descent, and her parents own a small perfume business about 20 minutes from where one of the attacks happened.

“While people were debating what this guy’s motives were, what defines a hate crime, my community was weeping. It was breaking us,” she said. “It was just really interesting to be in the tension of working in news and having to cover facts and understanding the importance of definitions and on the other side (personally) breaking, because it’s so close to home.”

She said when people are quick to point out police haven’t defined it a hate crime, it feels like they’re telling Asian Americans they shouldn’t be affected by this attack.

“There’s a trauma that we’ve been dealing with, on top of a global pandemic, of dealing with seeing your elders who are revered in your community being crushed or being murdered,” she said. “So it’s just like a double whammy. You want to grieve, but then there’s this whole debate of people trying to say, no, it wasn’t racist. The guy just had a sex addiction, when there are so many more complex issues to this with the hypersexualization of Asian woman and the list goes on.

“It’s almost like, ‘Hey, what you’re feeling right now is kind of invalid.’ … It was just really painful for people to hear that.”

Jennifer Chung, a Korean American singer living in Atlanta, told Mo said she felt “numb” when she heard the news. At least four of the victims were women of Korean descent. 

“There’s just been so much going on within our community all over, not just the U.S. but even the world,” Chung said. “It’s kinda morbid, but you’re thinking it was just a matter of time for it to happen down the street from you. And it’s devastating that it was an incident that took so many lives.”

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As we learn more about the killings, we are reporting more about the suspect’s claims of sexual addiction, and the hypersexualization of Asian American women in American culture. 

First of all, most sex addicts don’t murder, reported Adrianna Rodriguez.

Sexual addiction is “a repeated pattern of not being able to stop and feeling a sense of regret if you don’t stop, so you may build up anger and resentment,” said Dr. Douglas Weiss, psychologist and president of the American Association for Sex Addiction Therapy. “(But) I’ve been treating sex addicts for 30 years and less than 1% commit any violent act.”

But we do know the history and impact of dangerous sexualization of Asian women.

Life reporter Sara Moniuszko reported this week on a paper by attorney Sunny Woan, who wrote that “white sexual imperialism, through rape and war, created the hypersexualized stereotype of the Asian woman. This stereotype in turn fostered the overprevalence of Asian women in pornography, the mail-order bride phenomenon, the Asian fetish syndrome, and worst of all, sexual violence against Asian women.”

Moniuszko spoke with Liwag Dixon, who said she’s personally experienced targeted harassment.

It’s “the sort of thing that can be passed off as a joke and as harmless, but it’s really not,” she said. “A lot of these men have an Asian fetish and will say, ‘Oh I have yellow fever’ or ‘I’ve never been with an Asian woman before, you’re so exotic.’ 

“A lot of times it walks that line where it’s very uncomfortable and you feel targeted but you don’t feel like you’re in physical danger, but sometimes they get a little too close … and you wonder, am I going to end up murdered in a ditch? Are they going to try to rape me?”

The racism, the sexism, can be as casual as it is hurtful.

When Mi-Ai Parrish, who is Korean American, was named publisher of the Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, she began talking to lawmakers about legislation affecting newspapers. She and the organization’s attorney were meeting with then-Arizona Sen. Don Shooter in his office. 

Shooter told her he was an independent thinker who made his own choices and had done everything on his “bucket list.”  

And then he said: “Well, except that one thing.”

What was that, she asked.

“Those Asian twins in Mexico.”

Parrish, now managing director of Arizona State University Media Enterprises, said she’s angry and sad over how the Atlanta shootings are being framed by some in law enforcement and the media as one caused solely by a sex addiction.

“Somehow they have such a hard time saying this is an act of racism, an act of misogyny, an act of terror.”

While her community was shocked, and hurt, Mo said, talk Thursday in Atlanta turned to resilience. “There’s a hopefulness,” she said.

“A lot of people here are just rallying with one another, saying not to be scared and to speak up, opening businesses and not letting anything deter them.”

And central to that, she said, is speaking up. Of moving attention from the suspect to the victims. She wants to amplify the stories of those killed and the grief of the community that surrounds them. 

“His name, his story and his intentions are plastered everywhere but what the world didn’t see is the panicked phone calls we made to our parents last night,” she wrote in an essay this week. “Our blank stares trying to fight back tears at work and school the next day. 

“What you didn’t hear is the deep grieving and anger we aren’t used to expressing outwardly. Our words fumbling with long pauses in between because we’re learning what it means to finally take up space and be comfortable with it.”

As a journalist, and as a daughter of immigrants, she said she will do her part.

“We will speak up for those who no longer can.”

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here. 

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