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Let's not rush to judgment on racist motives

A demonstration in Atlanta on March 18, 2021,

A demonstration in Atlanta on March 18, 2021, following the spa shootings that killed eight, six of them Asian Americans. Credit: Getty Images/Megan Varner

Suppose there is a fatal shooting on the streets of your city. A young African American is arrested and charged with the crime. Then the police commissioner appears on television, displaying a graph about the racial identity of other perpetrators.

"A disproportionate percentage of violent crime in our city is committed by Black males between the ages of 18 and 30," he says. "This young man fits the pattern. So we think he did it."

Every decent human being would object to that. The heart of racism is the attribution of shared characteristics to all the members of a given group. It is racist to assume that a person is a criminal simply because other people in his race have committed crimes. Full stop.

So why is it OK to assume that Atlanta shooter Robert Aaron Long purposefully targeted Asian Americans?

Because, we’re told, his behavior fits a pattern. And that exactly mirrors the specious reasoning that racists use to profile minorities: other people committed a crime, so you must have committed one as well.

To state the obvious, Robert Long did commit a crime, and a truly awful one at that. But whether he committed a hate crime is a more complicated question, because it speaks to his motivation and state of mind at the time.

Nobody really knows why Long attacked three massage parlors in the Atlanta area last week and killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent. But we do know that hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased over the past year, fueled in part by the coronavirus pandemic and false charges that Asians are responsible for it.

And for many observers last week, that’s all we needed to know. Their logic went like this: Asians have been attacked because of hatred of their race; Robert Long attacked Asians; so Robert Long committed a hate crime.

After all, Rep. Judy Chu (D.-Calif.) noted last week, one spa that Long attacked was called — yes — Young Asian’s Massage. "The fact that he went to that one, with that title gives you a clue to what he was thinking," Chu said. "It’s clear that the individuals were targeted because they are amongst the most vulnerable in our country: immigrant, Asian women."

But of course that removes Long’s own individuality from the equation. It doesn’t matter that Long told police that he was acting out of rage over his sex addiction. Nor does it matter that when his roommates previously asked him if he frequented massage parlors because the women who worked there were Asian, he said no. (The parlors were simply the safest place for him to get quick sex, he explained.)

I understand why many Asians, especially, assumed that Long acted out of racial animus. They have been physically assaulted, spat upon, and called vile names. To them, Long's massacre looked like the culmination of a national terror campaign.

But that doesn't make them right. The fact that others have committed hate crimes against Asians should not be used against Robert Long, any more than citywide crime statistics should be cited to indict an African-American.

Let’s be clear: anti-Asian hate crime is real, it is horrible, and it is on the rise. And we may yet discover that Long's heinous act was inspired by racial hatred, like so many other assaults against Asians over the past year. But every person is different, and nobody should be judged by what other people have done. Not even Robert Aaron Long.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author, with Signe Wilkinson, of the forthcoming "Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn."