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Anti-Asian attacks rise along with online vitriol

Data shows that terms like ‘China,’ ‘Wuhan’ and ‘flu’ have surged on far-right forums on Telegram, 8kun and since the election

Three women were shot and killed at Gold Spa in Atlanta, one of three locations of deadly shootings on Tuesday. Authorities have said they are not yet sure whether the attacks were racially motivated. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
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The fatal shootings of six Asian women in Georgia on Tuesday have turned a spotlight on a disturbing trend of the past year: Crimes against people of Asian descent have risen sharply in the United States, along with online slurs blaming them for the coronavirus pandemic.

Authorities say they are not certain, at this point, that the alleged shooter, Robert Aaron Long, 21, was motivated by racial animus. But the broader trend of hateful words and deeds against Asians and Asian Americans is clear, researchers say, and appears to have spiked since the November presidential election and the contentious months that followed.

Terms including “China,” “Wuhan” and “flu” surged on far-right forums on Telegram, 8kun and as former president Donald Trump pushed baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud, according to data tracked by the Network Contagion Research Institute, which monitors misinformation and online extremism. The terms were used on those platforms 44 percent more in January than in the average month last year.

While the exact relationship between these terms and allegations of election fraud is not clear, the researchers theorize that rising political polarization fueled harsh talk online, as did xenophobia and the quest for scapegoats, including people of Asian descent.

“The election has corresponded with a resurgence of anti-Asian hate,” said Joel Finkelstein, the co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which first reported on rising anti-Asian animus in April. “There are a lot of people looking for others to blame.”

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Hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 of America’s biggest cities climbed 150 percent last year, with a spike in March and April, according to research earlier this month from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, which analyzed official police data.

The suspected gunman told police that the shooting was not racially motivated, and he may have frequented the spas, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker said Wednesday. The suspect’s “possible sexual addiction” appeared to be a factor, another official said, calling it “a temptation he wanted to eliminate.”

But to some researchers, activists and members of the Asian American community, the violent attack — in which a White gunman targeted predominantly Asian women — also seemed to fit a pattern of sexist and xenophobic language online, which has often dehumanized Asian women as objects for sexual fixation or exotic fetishization.

Charissa Cheah, a University of Maryland Baltimore County professor who has studied Asian American discrimination, said the “racialization” of the pandemic as the “China flu” has led to Asian Americans being targeted for real-world abuse.

The discriminatory language, she said, has historic roots in anti-Asian xenophobia, which has portrayed Chinese people as “disease-ridden threats to America.” But it is also reflective of the way Asian Americans have long been marginalized between conflicting dynamics of gender, class and power.

“There are these conceptualizations in the U.S. of Asians as being not American enough, the perpetual foreigner, or the ‘model minority’ myth that portrays Asian Americans as having moved beyond discrimination, as having succeeded,” she said. Those views have dovetailed, she added, with “the sexualization and exoticization of Asian American females in a very disturbing way.”

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The shootings at Young’s Asian Massage, Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa, which covered a roughly 30-mile stretch of the broader Atlanta area, left seven women and one man dead. Six of the victims were of Asian descent.

Stop AAPI Hate, an advocacy group for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, in a report released before the shootings, said Tuesday that it had received more than 3,700 reports of anti-Asian verbal harassment, civil rights violations and physical assault over the last year.

People reported being spat on, refused service and called demeaning slurs while shopping, in class or on the sidewalk. Women represented two-thirds of the reports; one said she had been told to “go back to Wuhan” and called a “Thai wh---.”

The group said in a statement after the shootings that they “will only exacerbate the fear and pain that the Asian American community continues to endure.”

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The police have given no indication that the spas were connected to illegal activity, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said Wednesday that they were “legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar.”

But Asian spas have long been a punchline for racist stereotypes, sexist jokes and accusations of prostitution.

On far-right online forums, users on Wednesday wavered between calling the attacks a “false flag” event orchestrated to push “the gun control agenda” and cracking crude racist jokes about the rampage as a “happy ending” — a reference to the term commonly used to describe a sex act at the end of a massage.

Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat, told The Washington Post she was “shocked” but “not surprised” by the violence due to the “increasing discrimination and violence against our Asian American communities.”

Our “community has been living in fear this past year in the shadow of escalating racial discrimination and attacks,” Au’s office said in a statement. “This latest series of murders only heightens that terror.”