Bronze-colored plaques with the message “Wuhan plague” popped up on buildings across Atlanta. An Asian American student on his way to a boba tea shop was told, “Thanks for covid.” In suburban Atlanta, an Asian American couple returning from the movies found a slur spray painted on their car.
For months, Asian Americans in Georgia, like in many areas across the country, have faced escalating verbal abuse and harassment, local advocates said. The already on-guard community reacted with shock and fear as it mourned the deaths of six Asian American women and two others fatally shot Tuesday at Atlanta-area spas.
The violence toward the businesses “is frightening and alarming,” Chris Chan, an advisory chair for the Asian American Action Fund Georgia Chapter, told The Washington Post.
Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat who represents a swath of north Fulton and Gwinnett counties, said that she was “shocked and saddened” when she first saw news of Tuesday night’s shootings but also that she was “not surprised.”
“Obviously the events are still unfolding, and we’re still getting more information. So I don’t want to jump to any conclusions as to the motivations behind this particular crime,” she told The Washington Post. “But just stepping back for a bit, I think that there is a picture in this country, especially over the past year, of increasing discrimination and violence against our Asian American communities.”
She said that regardless of what authorities determine to be the motive for Tuesday’s shootings, “it is taking place in a landscape where Asian Americans are increasingly terrified and fearful for their lives and their safety because of these escalating threats against our people.”
Law enforcement, who arrested Robert Aaron Long, 21, in connection with the shootings, said Wednesday that the suspect told them the attack was not racially motivated. Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant noted that it remains unclear whether the shootings could be classified as a hate crime.
But as the shootings came amid a national surge of racist attacks and threats against Asian Americans, advocates reacted with alarm and police from Seattle to New York ramped up security in Asian American neighborhoods.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, specifically pointed to the disproportionate impact that anti-Asian violence has on women.
Choimorrow said while authorities said the suspect claimed the violence was not racially motivated, she pointed to how personal biases — and larger social factors — may have had an impact.
“If you step back a little bit, pull back the curtains a bit, and really understand the history of how this country has perceived and treated Asian American women, it won’t be a surprise to come to the conclusion that there was some racialized motivation behind what happened yesterday,” she told The Post.
She pointed to a history of “exotifying” Asian American women.
“Many people interact with Asian American women as service workers, right? People who do body work. Whether it’s highly professionalized as doctors who cure your body, to nurses, to child-care workers to beauty-service industry, to the hospitality industry,” Choimorrow said.
She added: “The people that are most fearful to go to work today in Atlanta are Asian American women. It’s not White women, it’s Asian American women. They’re fearful to go to their service jobs today because of what happened yesterday.”
In Atlanta, Asians make up about 4 percent of the city’s population, but Asian American and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing community in Georgia and played a significant role in swinging November’s elections to Democrats in the state, The Post reported. Gwinnett County, just outside Atlanta, is home to the biggest Asian community in the state.
Last year, local advocates began sounding alarms about a recent string of attacks against Asian Americans. In May, a group of community leaders reported the sighting of small bronze-colored plaques with the words “Wuhan plague” and a picture of Winnie the Pooh eating a bat with chopsticks, WABE reported.
The phrase echoes racist slurs used by President Donald Trump, whose anti-China rhetoric during the pandemic many advocates blame for the rise in hate crimes.
“It’s doing nothing but reinforcing really awful stereotypes,” Krystle Rodriguez, the owner of a restaurant where one of the plaques was glued, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution at the time, speaking of the signs. “I have Asian American friends that said it’s allergy season and they’re afraid to sneeze in public because of all of the hate speech.”
The Atlanta Police Department confirmed it had received at least four reports of plaques matching this description, WABE reported. No arrests were reported at the time.
Speaking about Trump, Choimorrow said the former president’s rhetoric fueled “normalizing misogynistic behavior.” And when he ramped up anti-China rhetoric after the pandemic began, she said, he also “normalized hating Asian Americans publicly and hurling racial slurs.”
“And so the combination of the two has kind of brought us to where we are. And it’s not a surprise,” she said.
In the first shooting, in Cherokee County, two Asian women, a White woman and a White man were killed and a Hispanic man was wounded, police said. Less than an hour later, four Asian women were then killed at two businesses across the street from each other in northeast Atlanta.
During a Wednesday news conference, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office identified four of the victims: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, of Acworth, Ga.; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw, Ga.; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta.
Four of the women killed in Atlanta were of Korean ethnicity, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Sookyung Oh, the Washington-area director of the advocacy group National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, said local Asian Americans have been nervously monitoring news coverage of Tuesday’s shooting.
“I’m trying to keep it together,” said Oh, a second-generation Korean American. “I feel hurt. Asian American people feel hurt.”
Oh said the recent attacks follow a long history of violence against Asian Americans, largely fueled by negative stereotypes and xenophobia. Trump exacerbated those problems by labeling the coronavirus the “China virus,” she said.
“I don’t know how many times somebody has asked if I’m from here,” Oh said. “The ongoing story is that we don’t actually get to belong in the U.S.”
Local community organizations and public officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp (R), urged the public to remember the victims and police to take quick action on the case.
“We are shaken by the violence in our city that has left 8 people dead, including members of the Asian American community,” tweeted Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta. “We are gathering information about what happened & the needs of directly impacted are. Now is the time to hold victims and their families in our hearts & with light.”
Chan told The Post that local organizations are planning a rally to support the victims and their families.
“It will be a turning point in America and in the Asian communities’ attention for the hate crimes that have been going on for the past year,” he said. “Asian Americans will not be silent about it and we will demand justice and take steps to prevent the next crime. … Everyone has heard enough words. It’s time to take some action.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article included a police misspelling of one of the victim’s names. It is Xiaojie Tan, not Yan.
Atlanta spa shootings: What to read
The latest: Asian American leaders struggle over where to take their movement | Atlanta-area Asian Americans speak up | Atlanta spa shooting victims highlight struggles for Asian and Asian American immigrant women in low-wage jobs
Victims: What we know
The suspect: His life before the attacks | Accused Atlanta gunman’s church expels him, as local Korean church leaders mourn, call for action
Photos: Crowds gather around the country to protest anti-Asian violence
Video: Calls for an end to anti-Asian discrimination ring loud in Atlanta