Column: Atlanta shootings a chance to speak out, say members of Chicago’s Asian American community. ‘We’re tired of being quiet.’

·5 min read

Josina Morita hopes the horrific shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors Tuesday will shake America awake about its long, ugly history of anti-Asian racism.

A series of shootings over a three-hour period left eight people dead, many of them women of Asian descent. Police arrested a white 21-year-old Georgia man, and while the motive remains unclear, the attack occurred in the midst of an enormous uptick in anti-Asian harassment and hate crimes. A recent Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism study found hate crimes against Asian people rose 150% in 2020, even as overall hate crimes decreased by 7%.

“We’re in a place where we’ve seen an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans since the pandemic started,” Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen said after Tuesday’s shootings. “It’s hard to think it is not targeted specifically toward our community.”

Morita, a commissioner on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, chairs the Asian American Caucus, which was formed in 2019 to advocate for resources and representation for Asian Americans in Illinois.

“I hope that people who see this crime understand that it’s not an isolated incident,” Morita said. “It is the worst example we’ve seen in recent history, but it is part of a pattern that has increased since the pandemic and is also part of a history of anti-Asian violence and discriminatory policies in this country.

“Look at the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Morita continued, referring to an 1882 federal law prohibiting Chinese workers from entering the United States, the first and only U.S. legislation barring a single nationality from immigrating here. “Look at Japanese internment camps. We’ve had a long history of our government not speaking up for us.”

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Officials said the suspect arrested in Tuesday’s shootings may have had a “sexual addiction” and frequently visited massage parlors, though they wouldn’t immediately say whether he visited the parlors where the shootings took place.

Mae Flores, a community advocate who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines at age 11, said the locations of the shootings are an invitation to look at the sexual objectification of Asian women.

“It wasn’t at a nail salon,” she said. “It wasn’t at a hospital. It was massage parlors. We have to talk about how Asian women are objectified in the public eye. There are so many layers to it, but my overriding feeling is Asian women have a target on our backs.”

Flores said she has spent the past year worried about being harassed or attacked when she leaves her house. She worries for her sons and her mother, who walks to church in her suburban community every morning.

“So it’s not only our health,” Flores said. “We’re also fearing for our own lives and safety. And I feel like it’s not really being discussed.”

She hopes Tuesday’s shootings change that.

“We are so accustomed in my community to staying quiet and not making waves and not causing problems,” Flores said. “If we get beat up, well, keep quiet about it. Don’t draw attention to the whole community. This is an open opportunity for us to finally say, ‘We’re tired of being quiet.’”

The Asian American Caucus released a statement in response to Tuesday’s shootings, which was signed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Illinois House Speaker Chris’ Welch.

“The Asian American Caucus is horrified by yesterday’s murders,” it reads. “The increase in anti-Asian attacks have been fueled by xenophobic and racist misinformation. We stand together against hate and violence everywhere.”

Morita said one of her goals is to connect different community groups to tackle anti-Asian racism.

“We have, as an Asian American Caucus, been very explicit and intentional over the last year in connecting the struggles, particularly of the Black Lives Matter movement and the discrimination and violence that other communities experience,” Morita said. “Because we understand that it’s all connected. We have to have difficult conversations and find a way to build those bridges and move forward together.

“Because of the model minority myth,” she continued, “because of the general perception that Asian Americans are doing economically well, there is a perception that anti-Asian racism is less egregious and more acceptable than other kinds of racism. And as we saw yesterday, this is blatantly not true.”

The Illinois General Assembly is considering legislation that will require public elementary schools and high schools to include Asian American history in their curriculum, including the study of Japanese American internment camps during World War II and the contributions of Asian American service members during military conflicts.

The legislation, Morita said, feels more urgent than ever.

“My hope is people start to see Asian Americans as part of this country,” she said. “We are not foreigners. We are not immune to racism, and we are working to come together with other communities, particularly communities of color, for a long-term movement to fight racism against all communities. I hope this can be an opportunity for unity.”

Much will be made in the coming days and weeks about the suspect’s motives and whether the ethnicity of the majority of his victims played a part in his decision to target them. Those are important conversations, to be sure.

But they shouldn’t be the end of our conversation. What Flores said, what Morita said, what members of the Asian American community have been saying and fearing and experiencing since the beginning of a pandemic that has been weaponized against them, that all belongs front and center in our conversations — about Tuesday’s crimes, about the pandemic, about who we are as a nation and how we become a better, safer place for all.

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hstevens@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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