Why Atlanta spa shooter's Asian 'acquaintances' can't tell us much about his racial biases

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Although a Georgia prosecutor declared this week that no racial bias was involved in the Atlanta-area spa shootings in March, experts say interviews with the suspect’s Asian “acquaintances” prove little about Robert Aaron Long’s outlook on Asian Americans.

Long, who pleaded guilty to four murders that took place in Cherokee County and received four life sentences in a plea deal, told authorities he was motivated by his sex addiction. Yet the majority of his eight victims were Asian women.

Though his claim prompted outcry and protests from Asian Americans, prosecutor Shannon Wallace echoed Long’s assertion, saying investigators had interviewed acquaintances and others of Asian descent who knew the suspect, and none had seen him exhibit anti-Asian bias.

“We’ve considered the evidence collected by the FBI and our sheriff’s office, which failed to show any type of history this defendant had with any form of racism towards any other ethnicity,” Wallace said Tuesday before Cherokee County Superior Court Judge Ellen McElyea.

But experts said asking acquaintances about their observations reduces Long’s outlook on the Asian community to those interactions, ignoring the colliding dynamics that led him to the spas in the first place, as well as his mindset on the day of the attacks.

"Understanding the views of the shooter's Asian American acquaintances is less important in making sense of this crime," said Janelle Wong, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, "than understanding the ways in which the victims' racial backgrounds, gender and vulnerable class positions contributed to their occupations, their need to be working in a spa during the pandemic and, ultimately, their being targets."

Stanley Mark, a senior staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights organization, said that in cases like this, prosecutors and police must primarily weigh the “moment of the incident itself.” In investigating crimes for racial bias, particularly from a political standpoint, it’s routine to look into the suspect’s background and gather information from his personal emails, for example. However, that’s not sufficient to make a determination about his behavior at the time of the shooting.

“If they're talking to his friends, I think that's legitimate. But on the other hand, it's not conclusive,” Mark said. “It's not his state of mind at the moment. He shot these people. That's, that's what you're looking at, not past acts or slurs.”

Mark said Long’s attorneys likely insisted he didn’t have racial bias in an attempt to mitigate his intent. If investigators had heard from acquaintances that Long had acted in a racially offensive way, then such information could be used as circumstantial evidence or reflect on the suspect’s character, but that is not enough, Mark said.

From a commonsense standpoint, it’s not particularly likely that the shooter would behave with blatant anti-Asian bias in front of his friends, Mark said.

“You're not going to say bulls--- stuff to people who are your friends or say anti-Chinese or anti-Asian stuff to other Asians,” Mark said. “That’s lunacy.”

Long’s killing of six Asian women at three spas, including one called Young’s Asian Massage, is where focus should be placed, Mark said. The suspect had admitted to investigators that he frequented Young’s in the past. On the day of the shooting, he said he visited the spa where his rampage began after a woman had already performed a sexual act on him.

“There's this whole thing about exotic erotica, a fetish for Asian women. ... Does it make him a racist? I don’t know. ... My personal opinion is he made a selection, whether conscious or unconscious, to attack these women, and they were Asian women,” Mark said. “He picked these places. To me, it shows a state of mind. It may not be enough in a prosecutor's mind. I certainly think there's probable cause, that there was crime, and there was probable cause that he picked them because they're Asian women.”

“They're trying to mitigate his intent. But it doesn't change the fact that he killed these people,” Mark said. “Whether he was consciously trying to kill these women as bias, I don't think anybody will ever know. But when you look from the outside, you realize he picked these spas, he went in and killed these women.”

The historical sexualization of Asian women in the U.S., which is a “clear part of this story,” is a result of the confluence of racist and sexist stereotypes and structures in the U.S., Wong said. Those factors exist “regardless of the racial background and character assessment of the shooter’s acquaintances,” she said.

Long had told authorities that his acts were his form of vigilante justice, taking it upon himself to “eliminate temptation.” But experts have noted that such language is emblematic of archaic beliefs that Asian women are exotic, submissive and sexually deviant. These notions were even legislated at one time through the Page Act of 1875, which banned importing women "for the purpose of prostitution." Immigration officers often used their discretion to keep any Asian woman from entering the country, regardless of profession.

Moreover, Wong said the identities of the victims and the class circumstances that led them to work at the spas cannot be forgotten in the discourse and which interviews with Long’s acquaintances cannot capture.

“This case presents an important opportunity to acknowledge the ways in which racism, sexism and economic exploitation work together to create the kind of vulnerabilities at the center of this case,” Wong said.

Though a hate crime distinction would be largely symbolic given the magnitude of Long’s punishment, experts said the failure to acknowledge the racial component in the killings could have dangerous societal implications.

“I think the real harm of an analysis that ignores the role that race played in this tragedy is that it discounts how a critical influence on life chances operated here,” Wong said. “If we fail to recognize the role of race, we cannot address the underlying conditions associated with race that created the dynamic that led Long to the spa in the first place.”

Instead, prosecutors have continued the use of Long’s “sex addiction” as the rationale for the killings, but the idea that sex addiction is a disorder is not supported by research, nor is it accepted as a clinical diagnosis. Apryl Alexander, associate professor in the graduate school of professional psychology at the University of Denver, previously explained to NBC News that such defenses have been used by white men to absolve themselves of responsibility for their behaviors and “as an excuse to pathologize misogyny.”

The reality, Alexander emphasized, is that such gender-based violence takes place at the intersection of misogyny, racism, xenophobia and homophobia. Such violence “doesn’t just occur in isolation,” she said.

Long still faces four murder charges in Fulton County, where the other killings occurred and where the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty. Given what Asian Americans have been through since they first came to the U.S., and the ways in which women of Asian descent have had to deal with public safety concerns and racialized violence, Mark said the community doesn’t need the district attorney to confirm their truth.

“It doesn't matter what the DA says. Politically, they can whitewash and say it's not racially motivated,” Mark said. “We as Asian Americans — we know what it was.”

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