A deadly attack in Georgia, on March 17 forced U.S. officials to confront the rising wave of anti-Asian sentiment in the country, even as top Cabinet officials were in East Asia to shore up U.S. alliances.
Shootings at three different massage parlors in Woodstock and Atlanta, Georgia, killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent. The Korean Foreign Ministry confirmed that four of the dead were ethnic Koreans; another two were reportedly Chinese, and two were White. Seven of the eight victims were women.
The killings horrified the Asian American community, which saw the shootings as an attack on them, given a recent wave of assaults that coincided with the spread of COVID-19 across the United States. The virus was first identified in China, and then-President Donald Trump and others have used racially charged terms to describe it.
The attacks in Georgia began when five people were shot at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor near Woodstock, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Atlanta, authorities said. Four died: 33-year-old Delaina Ashley Yaun, 54-year-old Paul Andre Michels, 44-year-old Daoyou Feng and 49-year-old Xiaojie Tan, who owned the business.
The suspect then drove to Atlanta, where a call came in about a robbery at Gold Spa and three women were shot to death. Another woman was fatally shot at the Aromatherapy Spa across the street. The names of those victims have not been released, as police said they were still notifying the families.
According to the U.S.-based Korea Daily’s reporting, both of the latter spas were Korean-owned, and all four victims were ethnic Koreans. Korea Daily added that at least some of the women had worked under English nicknames, making it more difficult to find their family members.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, was arrested in connection with the shootings hours later by Crisp County deputies and state troopers.
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds, where the first shooting occurred, said it was too early to tell if the attack was racially motivated “but the indicators right now are it may not be.” Long told police that Tuesday’s attack was not racially motivated. He claimed to have a “sex addiction,” and authorities said he apparently lashed out at what he saw as sources of temptation.
Those statements spurred outrage and widespread skepticism given the locations and that six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
The shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia,” said state Representative Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House and a frequent advocate for women and communities of color.
“While the details of the shootings are still emerging, the broader context cannot be ignored,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta said in a statement. “The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fueled by white supremacy and systemic racism.”
Recent attacks, including the killing of an 84-year-old San Francisco man in February, have raised concerns about worsening hostilities toward Asian Americans. Nearly 3,800 incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and its partner advocacy groups, since March 2020. Nationally, women reported more than double the number of hate incidents compared with men.
U.S. President Joe Biden called the latest attacks “very, very troublesome.”
“We don’t yet know the motive, but what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain tonight. The recent attacks against the community are un-American. They must stop,” Biden tweeted Wednesday.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman in that office, expressed support to the Asian American community, saying, “We stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people.”
While local police hesitated to label the attack a hate crime or racially motivated in the immediate aftermath, Korean media pointed to a local Korean-language news report quoting a survivor’s testimony that the perpetrator shouted he was going to “kill all the Asians.”
For their part, Chinese media headlines emphasized that the motive of the crime was “unclear,” citing the Atlanta police comments that there was not yet evidence pointing to a racial motive. But Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, like most U.S. media outlets, linked the shootings to the general rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
At the time of the shooting, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin were in Seoul for meetings with their South Korean counterparts, as well as President Moon Jae-in. Both Blinken and Austin directly addressed the murders in comments alongside their Korean counterparts on March 18.
“We’re horrified by this violence, which has no place in America or anywhere, for that matter. And I want to offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who died and to everyone in the Korean community who is shaken and deeply disturbed by this incident,” Blinken said. “We are as well, and we will stand up for the right of our fellow Americans and Korean Americans to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Austin expressed similar sentiments, saying he was “also saddened by the horrific attacks in Atlanta, Georgia yesterday… Our deepest sympathies go out to all those affected by this horrific crime and specifically the families of those who were killed. And I share my colleague’s view that violence of this type or any other type has no place in our society.”
South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong likewise started his remarks by addressing the shooting: “I would like to send our deepest heart to those who are sacrificed. Among those sacrificed, we confirmed that there are Korean Americans as well. It is our utmost interest to seek the safety of those Koreans living in the U.S. Our heart also go to those who are sacrificed as Americans.”
As of this writing, China’s Foreign Ministry had not directly responded to the shootings in Georgia, or confirmed the ethnicity of any of the victims. But during his March 18 press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian did take a question on the general rise of hate crimes targeting ethnic Asians, especially ethnic Chinese, in the United States.
“Discrimination against Asian Americans, including against the Chinese, has been on the rise in the U.S. over the past period of time. The number of violent hate crimes has also been increasing. Defenseless elders of Asian ethnicity have been brutally attacked, their lives put in grave danger,” Zhao said. “Such despicable actions, born out of senseless discrimination, make us furious and sad.
He also accused “some anti-China forces inside the U.S.” of “fanning racism and hatred, condoning discriminatory behaviors against Chinese nationals in the US including Chinese students, and even spying, harassing, cross-examining and arresting them for no cause at all.”
“The Chinese side is deeply concerned over this. The U.S. side should take concrete steps to address its own problems of racism and discrimination, and ensure the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens in the U.S.,” Zhao concluded.
In an ironic twist, however, anti-Chinese sentiments are sometimes shared by other Asians as well – even though racist attacks in the United States make no distinction between different Asian ethnicities (see the tragic case of Vincent Chin for a prominent example). The top-voted comment on one Chosun Ilbo story on the shootings, for example, blamed “Chinese atrocities all around the world” for violence against Asians.
With reporting by Terry Tang, Kate Brumback, and Angie Wang of the Associated Press.