The fatal shooting of eight people at Asian-operated spas in Atlanta has highlighted growing anti-Asian American sentiment that many experts have been worrying about since the start of the pandemic.
Discrimination against Asians and Asian-Americans has flourished throughout history, dating back to past immigration laws, intervention wars and military occupations in various Asian countries, said Meredith Oda, historian and associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“I think if we look at what he targeted — three Asian massage parlors, often with Asian women working there — if we put it into context, it makes a lot of sense,” Oda said of the suspected gunman, Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, Georgia.
Amy Koo, deputy political director for One APIA Nevada and a former Reno resident, said the Silver State has its own history of racism against Asian Americans. She’s seen a rise in discrimination and violence against the Asian American community in Las Vegas over the last year.
She said the gunman’s motive for the shootings in Atlanta raises the assumption that all Asian-run massage parlors are operating illicitly, which isn’t always the case.
“These are immigrant women who are just trying to provide for their families,” Koo said.
Investigators said the gunman opened fire at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia on March 16, killing four people and injuring a fifth. He then drove 30 miles to Atlanta and killed four more people at two other spas.
In Acworth, the victims included Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng. Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim and Yong Ae Yue were identified Friday by the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office as the four victims of the shootings at two spas in Atlanta.
The lone shooting victim who survived the attack, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was hospitalized in intensive care. Authorities have said the gunman was headed to Florida to carry out more shootings at spas there.
The man reportedly told investigators he attacked the spas because he wanted to “eliminate” the temptation to feed his sexual compulsion. He is facing a total of eight murder charges and one count of assault in connection to all three shootings, USA Today reported.
The case has drawn attention to how hate crimes are defined, and a House panel will hold a hearing Thursday addressing the rise in anti-Asian American hate and discrimination. An anti-hate crime bill is likely to come up during the hearing as lawmakers consider their response to the rise in hate.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) has joined bicameral legislation introduced by Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) to address the rise of hate crimes and violence targeted at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act would create a Department of Justice position to expedite the review of COVID-19-related hate crimes, provide support for state and local law enforcement to respond to hate crimes as well as work with local and federal partners to mitigate racially discriminatory language used to describe the pandemic, Cortez Masto’s office announced this week.
Oda said Asian women have long been the targets of violence, and they have been sexualized and fetishized in American culture. She doesn’t believe the shooting was an isolated incident.
“We can’t understand things as blips or weird, unique, one-off events, but rather they’re a part of systematic inequalities and … racial oppressions,” she said in a recent interview with the Reno Gazette Journal.
Understanding the history
According to Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks acts of discrimination and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, an estimated 3,800 incidents of hate, discrimination or attacks on Asian Americans have been reported from March 2020 through February 2021. That’s compared to roughly 100 incidents annually in previous years, according to a USA Today report.
“That AAPI report noted that Asian-American women made up about two-thirds of those documented incidents,” Oda said, adding that many go unreported.
Oda said Asian-Americans have experienced rejection since the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for a period of 10 years. Signed into law in 1882, it was the first act to place broad restrictions on immigration, according to the U.S. Office of the Historian.
The Page Law, passed in 1875, also targeted primarily Chinese women brought to the U.S. for “immoral purposes,” according to Immigration and Ethnic History Society—a nonprofit organization based in Minnesota that promotes the study of immigration history.
“From the start, Asian laws excluded women specifically in these sexualized terms,” Oda said.
Eventually, the U.S. established military bases in the Pacific and in Asia. Cities then “popped up” around the military bases offering services to Americans based there, Oda said.
“That included bars, but that also includes sex work,” Oda said. “It’s not like sex workers and prostitutes followed the (U.S.) Army. This kind of industry was created because of these military bases.”
She said many of those countries were devastated by war, referencing the Korean War, Vietnam War and the war against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rape was common around military bases, she said, including among young girls.
“The local governments often had limited access to punish the service people, and often had an incentive to hush it up because so much rides on the continuation of American service people putting their money into these local communities via the bodies of these sex workers,” Oda said.
When the U.S. drew back its troops, some of those women who operated sex parlors in their home countries immigrated to the U.S. and opened massage parlors, Oda said.
“It kind of helped to establish the idea of Asian women as desirable, but also willing and available, particularly to white American men,” Oda said, adding many scholars found some massage parlors were rooted in camp towns.
Some operate legally, she said, but others allow women to work under the table.
Anti-Asian sentiments in Nevada
Koo, with One APIA Nevada, said understanding the history of the Asian-American communities is critical, particularly now.
Koo referenced the transcontinental railroad that connects Reno to Sacramento, which Chinese migrant workers helped build.
“The safety conditions of a lot of the workers were not very good,” Koo said. “After they completed the transcontinental railroad … a lot of these Chinese laborers were kind of left to their own devices.
“And we actually saw a really vibrant Chinatown grow in Reno from the late 1800s to the early 1900s,” she said.
But in the early 1900s, Chinatown was declared as a physical and moral threat, and the entire thing was demolished.
“That wasn’t even the first time that Chinatown had been destroyed,” Koo said. “I believe in 1878, it had also been burned down by people who didn’t want it there.”
Oda said the Trump Administration also helped create an anti-Asian American sentiment by referring to COVID-19 as the “China flu,” the “Kung flu” or the “Wuhan virus.”
“It takes different shapes at different times, but this undercurrent very much has its roots,” Oda said. “There is definitely a racial and gender component to this, whether or not the police wish to acknowledge that.”
Setting a foundation
Oda said she believes that the Black Lives Matter movement laid down a foundation that’s helping spread awareness of racial inequalities, discrimination and racism outside of the Black community.
She also acknowledged the Latinx communities, which have been organizing to fight the criminalization of migrants.
“I think it’s allowed people more broadly to be amenable to the idea that Asian-Americans also face systematic racism,” Oda said. “It looks different to anti-Black or anti-Latinx bias, but nonetheless, there is a structural kind of anti-Asian sentiment there.”
Koo said acknowledging hate crimes when they happen is important because many of those communities are hurting.
“There was a sense of understanding that we can’t keep quiet anymore,” she said.
Marcella Corona is a reporter covering local underrepresented communities in Northern Nevada. Support her work by subscribing to RGJ.com.