Understanding the killing of eight people, six of them Asian women, at three massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16 requires carefully disentangling prevailing cultural themes, economic opportunities of ethnic groups and individual motivations for criminal actions — as well as mass politics.

The killings resulted in more media stories about Asians and Asian Americans in a single week than are normally published in a year.

Photos of protesters holding “Stop Asian Hate” signs appeared in many online services and the hashtag #StopAsianHate trended on social media.

“Stop Asian Hate” is a desirable goal and an effective political rally sign, but it can too easily be confused with calls for charging the shooter, Robert Aaron Long, with a hate crime.

While it is understandable, and good, that Asian Americans and Asian immigrants demonstrate their fears and concerns about their safety, the media should be careful in framing the story as a hate crime and filtering the defendant’s actions as an explanation through a particular narrative.

As a legal term, a hate crime requires evidence that a crime was motivated by hate toward a protected group such as an ethnic group.

Usually, such evidence includes words spoken, previous social media posts or symbols of hatred. It remains to be seen if legal authorities, after more investigation, charge Long with a hate crime. If so, a penalty would be added on to the sanctions for committing eight murders.

Early accounts of the tragedy were quick to discount the police spokesman’s recounting the defendant’s statement that his actions were not related to race but to his sexual addiction.

A typical article is the Washington Post’s, based on the views of a founder of an Asian American advocacy group that the shooter had to be aware of the racial history of Asian Americans and that the shooting was a hate crime.

Further, the reporters dismissed the possibility that the killer’s actions were due to a sex addiction despite “the suspect telling police he had a ‘sex addiction,’ “and wanted to eliminate temptation,” because it “sounded to many women as if their sexuality was somehow to blame.”

The killings were not random shootings of Asians throughout the Atlanta area; they were at three similar business where the Asian women worked.

The sexuality of massage spa workers is an attraction of massage spas, or parlors, compared to that of massage therapists, which is an increasingly popular alternative medical treatment of soft tissue issues.

Since 2009, I have visited four Asian countries and taught at a South Korean university on six different occasions.

I currently teach at MU’s Asian Affairs Center. I am very fond of Asia and am shocked by the tragedy and saddened that the Asian community is in pain because of the killings.

America has a long history of mistreating citizens and immigrants from Asia.

Undoubtedly, our current culture has traces of anti-Chinese laws in the 1920s, mixed reactions to the Vietnam Era, and mixed views of Asian academic and business success over the past 30 years.

In addition to what some cultural observers see as the “hypersexualization of Asian women” there is now also reaction to the “model minority myth,” which causes resentment among white and Black Americans because Asians excel disproportionately because of Asian values of hard working, family support and self-sacrifice.

Good data about harassment and violence against Asians and Asian Americans is difficult to find.

In the reaction to the Atlanta killing a frequent source is the ”Stop AAPI Hate National Report” that is a count of self-reported incidents of harassment at 68%, shunning, 20%, physical assault, 11%, and civil rights violations such as employment discrimination at 8.5% and online harassment, 7%.

A frequent claim is that the number of incidents has dramatically increased in the past year as a result of COVID-19.

My principal concern about media and the Asian community’s reaction to the killings is that it will distort the conditions that most Asian Americans experience in the U.S.

Even using the term “Asian American” is a bit bothersome. There are about 20 individual Asian countries of origin that get grouped together under the label of “Asian Americans” while we don’t have a comparable term for the Irish, German, French, or English immigrants who came to the U.S.

Harassment and threats to Asian Americans should be prevented without unnecessarily diminishing their happiness and success in America.

Moreover, we should be mildly concerned that other countries see Asian American concerns as a human rights abuse and use it to distract from their own more pervasive human rights tragedies.

My Korean students tell me that the surest indicator that the U.S. has lost its luster as the most desirable place to be will be when Korean and other Asian students prefer to travel, study, and live in Canada, Austria, Brazil and Germany rather than in America.

It seems unlikely that the Atlanta murder defendant will be charged with a hate crime.

It would be unfortunate if not charging him for the killings of six Asians is interpreted by news media consumers around the world as anything other than a reprehensible, uncommon crime that we all condemn.


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