The Undeniable Legacy of Anti-Asian Violence

The Undeniable Legacy of Anti-Asian Violence
Image:Elijah Nouvelage/AFP (Getty Images)

It takes at least 30 minutes to drive from Young’s Asian Massage Parlor in Acworth, Georgia, to the nondescript block in the northern Atlanta suburb of Buckhead where one can find another cluster of Asian massage parlors, including Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa. On Tuesday, according to local law enforcement authorities, an armed gunman made that drive, killing four people and injuring another at Young’s Asian Massage Parlor and then three women at Gold Spa before he went across the street to shoot and kill another woman at Aromatherapy Spa. Seven of the people killed were women, and six were Asian women. As several outlets have reported, four of those women were Korean American.

Based on camera footage that saw his car at all three locations around the time of the shootings, police identified 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long as a suspect, and arrested him as he appeared to be fleeing Atlanta, capturing him more than 150 miles outside of the city. According to news reports, the FBI is now involved.

We don’t know much yet about Long’s motivations, and most news outlets have been hesitant to speculate, but given that he deliberately targeted massage parlors where Asian women worked, and in separate locations, it’s at least safe to say that he had a very specific target in mind. On Wednesday morning, those motivations are becoming clearer. “I’m going to kill all the Asians,” Long reportedly stated, according to a local Korean American news outlet. That these murders happened in the midst of alarming reports of a recent rise in anti-Asian violence, with most of the incidents reported by women, underscores a reality that Asian American women know all too well, and have known even before the covid-19 pandemic became equated in the minds of some with a new yellow peril encouraged by a president who casually tossed around terms like “China virus”—that we are targeted at times for being both Asian and women, a targeting whose motivating forces can’t be separated from a long history of immigrant exclusion, from wars abroad, from global sex tourism.

But that understanding can obfuscate the specifics of violent acts as much as it clarifies. We don’t yet know much about the women who were killed, or about the places where they worked (but at least two of the massage parlors had dozens of reviews on Rubmaps, a website that has been described as the Yelp of Asian massage parlors that offer sexual services). Massage parlors are often staffed by immigrant women who, far from the dominant and largely false narrative that they are exploited victims of human trafficking, often see sex work as a reliable source of income and employment. It’s a job that depends on the labor of largely immigrant women who are at times vulnerable to abuse—notably from police officers and a system that sees them as both victims and criminals—whose working conditions can and should be improved. But that’s not the common conception of these women.

I don’t know what was in the killer’s mind, nor do I need or want to. But it’s all too easy to see why he might deliberately target a group of women who are largely thought of in the popular imagination as both uniquely vulnerable and morally suspect, as women who are at times not worthy of dignity. They deserved all of that dignity in life; may they receive it now.

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