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The Intersectional Horror of the Atlanta Massacre

Downplaying racism in a mass shooting of Asian women shows we’re still getting white violence wrong

Desperate to name any upside to a year-long pandemic, we noted that public mass shootings reached their lowest rate in more than a decade. We knew, however, that the composite factors of gun violence hadn’t faded away; while crime declined overall, the number of shootings and homicides began to rise. And from the very first signs of outbreak, Asian Americans were at pronounced risk of everything from verbal harassment to physical assault, as Trump and the right-wing media did their best to brand the virus as explicitly Chinese, a foreign invader.

Today, families are grieving for eight people murdered in rampage by a 21-year-old gunman who targeted massage parlors and spas throughout the Atlanta metro area. He is white. Seven of his victims were women, six were women of Asian descent, and according to South Korea’s foreign ministry, four were of Korean origin. It is indisputable that he chose to take specific lives: The attack was on Asian women in the service industry who he considered — accurately or not — to be sex workers. The police are myopically focused on that last part: the sexual grievance.

Cops have their reasons for downplaying racism in the communities they patrol. No one has to guess what these are. But even outside the festering pit of law enforcement, there is a human tendency to look for the narrow explanation. A single cause for each and every shocking effect. We know better, we just don’t act like it. Begin the familiar routine of scouring social media, his family background, recent behavior — chart the steady escalation of his hate. Then classify it.

Often we do more to develop a clear portrait of the killer than the killed. The bodies become an extension of the man and his particular quest for blood. They are dehumanized twice: First, by the vengeful maniac unable to see them as real, thinking, feeling people, and then by strange, anonymous limbo of dry news copy, which corroborates a few bare facts of their backgrounds as it plunges into the mind of the apprehended suspect, once an “innocent” religious boy.

It is sickening, also, to act as if there is a great mystery to the carnage that unfolded in Atlanta. If it’s true that the shooter saw the female Asian employees of massage parlors as the prime threat to his control over sexual impulses, that view is born out of misogyny, racism and classism that have never been separable in American life. He operated from the simple, chilling proposition that these women, by virtue of their ethnicity, gender and employment, existed only in relation to his desires.

The mainstream institutions and online networks that foster such contempt — from the church to the red-pill message board — do not elevate an individual bigotry to the exclusion of the others. White supremacy is about more than skin color; the desire to harm women maligned as either cheap sluts or stuck-up bitches isn’t a purely sexual psychosis. The straight white male is afforded an entire universe of Others to demonize, and when the time comes to take up arms, he can put any combination of them in the crosshairs.

An intersectional understanding of this massacre, and the trends that breed such terror, would likewise be incomplete without analysis of the hysteria over human trafficking. The overtly Christian fascism of QAnon and related movements in the MAGAsphere draws upon the enduring panic of “white slavery” — blond suburban children kidnapped by outsiders to serve the depraved appetites of a shadow cabal — while ignoring the realities of trafficking, such as forced migrant labor.

Instead of asking if the dead in Atlanta are casualties, in part, of the global crime ring they claim to be exposing, the Q crowd is already labeling the shooting a “false flag” meant to justify stricter gun control and “push the narrative” that Asians are under attack from violent xenophobes. They’re also doubling down on the “China virus” rhetoric that brought us here. If you believe this shooting was a staged distraction from the truth of your mutable fantasies, you are free to deny your proximity to it while providing a script for the next one. And women like those killed will suffer renewed oppression from the state and culture alike.

The rush to eliminate or emphasize different motives here indicates a search for anomaly. We want the madness to be unusual, perhaps unique, an isolated case that comes down to a disturbed lone wolf and won’t be replicated. Again, we ought to be the wiser: Spectacle killings all belong to the same vile tapestry, and none should be carved out as an exception to the rest, for a piecemeal response is worse than useless. Two factors — access to firearms, and the malice to turn them on someone sufficiently vulnerable and vilified — encompass the history of the act. The victims in Atlanta did not perish as women foremost, or as low-wage service workers, or as Asians. They were cut down as themselves, the total of and much more than the identity markers by which we relate their tragic fate.

We owe it to them to leave nothing out.