They didn’t call the murder spree at Emanuel AME Church a hate crime either — not at first. In 2015, Dylann Roof entered the historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, known as Mother Emanuel and joined the ongoing Bible study. Shortly after, he calmly gunned down nine members of the study group. There would have been one more, but he allowed Polly Sheppard to live, telling her, “You’re going to tell the story.” Roof was described as “troubled,” and his bloody massacre was described as a tragedy not necessarily linked to racial animus. Law enforcement did not officially label the killings a hate crime until after Roof described himself as a white supremacist and there was irrefutable evidence of his racist motivation. But Black Americans understood right away exactly what it was — yet another violent, racist attack.
The Mother Emanuel tragedy immediately came to mind when I heard about the killing rampage of Robert Aaron Long. Long traveled to several Atlanta area spas last week, shooting eight people — seven women and one man, six of whom were Asian. He was quickly arrested and admitted to the killings. He described himself as a sex addict but insisted his crime was not racially motivated.
Capt. Jay Baker, spokesperson for the Cherokee County’s Sheriff’s Office, appeared to diminish his murders and dismiss the possibility of a race-based motive, saying, “He had a really bad day, and that’s what he did.”
Long apparently had frequented some of the spa locations, so he had to know that most of the employees were Asian. Additionally, there is a long history of hyper sexualization of Asian women. It is therefore nearly impossible to separate race from sex. By his own admission, Long saw these businesses and the Asian women workers as his “temptation.” What’s more, these murders can’t be seen as a random incident. Asian Americans, assaulted in a continuing spate of increased violence across the country, know his murders were inspired by hate.
Attacks against Asians have risen sharply during the pandemic — nearly 4,000 incidents have been documented by the group Stop AAPI (or Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate. The group said the number is likely an undercount because so many victims are too frightened to report the attacks. Many Asian Americans also say the way former President Donald Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “China Virus" or Kung Flu” helped foment unprovoked attacks. Across the country, Asian victims have been punched and screamed at for “bringing the virus.” Dangerous stereotyping that many feared would incite lethal attacks.
Long was charged with murder and assault just as U.S intelligence agencies released a new report documenting the “elevated threat” of domestic terrorism. The report underscores previous warnings and names white supremacy and racial targeting as the most potent threats.
As an African-American traumatized by the killings of unarmed Black men and women, I worry everyday about unprovoked racist attacks. The only way for racist attacks to stop is for the people who are not targets to call it out. As Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms noted, “A crime against any community is a crime against us all.”
All of our voices have to get louder in solidarity with Asian Americans now. Stop AAPI hate.