The nation has been rocked by yet another mass killing — the shooting of eight people at massage parlors in Atlanta. But this one is even more ominous than usual, because six of the victims were Asian women at a time when hate crimes and attacks against Asian Americans have soared. It also comes as relations between the U.S. and China are deteriorating, making it even more imperative that the U.S. quash this wave of persecution.
Tension between the two superpowers has been rising for a number of years over issues like human rights, trade and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But in recent years negative sentiment towards China has spiked to previously unimaginable levels. In the U.S., this unfavorable opinion is almost as strong among Democrats as among Republicans, and is common among people of various races. And the negative sentiment is worldwide, extending to many countries in both Europe and Asia.
It’s possible to see the latest deadly attack as one more manifestation of a wave of free-floating hatred that has afflicted America in the last few years. In 2017, a shooter targeted Indian men in Kansas, probably mistaking them for Muslims. In 2018, a shooter killed 11 Jewish people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the following year there was another synagogue shooting. In 2019, a man killed 23 people, mostly Latino, at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas.
Though these attacks came at a time when mass shootings have been on the rise in general, in all of these cases the killers had imbibed generous helpings of right-wing propaganda. The rampage in Atlanta might simply mean that this hatred has found a new target; U.S. investigators at this point haven’t linked the shootings to a hate crime against Asian Americans.
While the Atlanta killer was particularly deadly, he wouldn’t be the first in targeting Asian Americans for violence. In 2020, hate crimes against Asian people in the U.S. went up by 150%, with as many as 3,000 violent incidents throughout the country. That can’t be explained by the general rise in violence — murder did go up in the year of the pandemic, but only by 30%, and aggravated assault by only 6%.
Elderly Asian men have been killed on the street in San Francisco and Phoenix, and other elderly Asians were injured in similar attacks in Oakland and New York City. Robberies against Asian-owned businesses have increased, and there have been bombs or suspicious fires at Asian community centers in some cities. Across the country, Asian Americans have been spit on, threatened and attacked with slurs.
To some degree, this is an intensification of a long-standing trend. My Asian friends have often been the subject of harassment and aggression on the street, especially in supposedly tolerant California. Some — usually women — have been the victims of unprovoked violence. Asian people, and especially Asian women, are perceived as easy targets. And Asians in America are also often treated as "perpetual foreigners," excluded from the country’s conception of its own demographic mainstream.
But something changed in 2020, and it’s pretty obvious what it was: COVID-19. A worldwide wave of attacks on Asian people erupted in the early days of the pandemic, which originated in China. It’s obviously stupid to blame people for being of the same race or ethnicity as a country where a virus originates, but it happened nonetheless. And in the U.S., the wave of misdirected anger was amplified by then-President Donald Trump, who constantly associated the virus with China in his speeches and tweets. Many of the recent anti-Asian hate crimes have involved repetition of the term "China virus," which Trump popularized and repeated often.
Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks anti-Asian violence, said it had received almost 3,800 reports of hate incidents since mid-March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic seized the U.S. More than 500 of those came in the first two months of 2021.
Fortunately, President Joe Biden is actively working to quash anti-Asian hate, not just with rhetoric, but with law enforcement. JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon spoke out about the Atlanta shooting Wednesday and said he wouldn’t tolerate racism at the biggest U.S. bank. Those actions, plus Trump’s expulsion from social media and the end of the pandemic, may eventually tamp down the recent wave of violent hate.
The question must still be asked: Will tensions with China, or even a potential conflict, extend and deepen the wave of racism against Asian people in the U.S.? It’s certainly a possibility. On one hand, the wave of anger toward China began well before the recent surge of anti-Asian violence, so it’s probably not an immediate cause. But now that anti-Asian violence has effectively become a meme, a conflict with China could cement that meme and cause Asians to be targeted for years.
It’s unlikely that Biden can or will tamp down tensions with China just to avoid fueling racism. Instead, he and other U.S. leaders — including Republicans — need to redouble their efforts to explicitly tell Americans not to conflate Asian people with the country of China, and that targeting Asians is unacceptable. There’s a precedent for this: In the wake of 9/11, then-President George W. Bush’s repeated insistence that America wasn’t at war with Islam, and that Islam was a religion of peace, probably helped limit the size of the wave of anti-Muslim violence in 2003.
But in addition, American leaders and institutions need to think about longer-term strategies for reducing anti-Asian hate and violence. Asian Americans must no longer be the invisible minority; our leaders must explicitly highlight their presence in a positive light and cement them as true core members of the American people. The only true end to the hate and violence will come when Asian Americans are no longer viewed as perpetual foreigners.
Noah Smith wrote this piece for Bloomberg.