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Shootings in Atlanta put focus on year of heightened anti-Asian violence in the West

Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his horror March 17, at a string of attacks at day spas in Atlanta, that left six Asian women dead. (Video: Reuters)

The slaying of six Asian women among eight people killed in shootings at three Atlanta-area spas on Tuesday left Asian communities in many Western countries shaken, after a year that has seen a spike in racist attacks and threats against people of Asian descent.

The suspected attacker, Robert Aaron Long, 21, may have been motivated by a sexual obsession, according to police. But police have not ruled out a racial motivation, and racist, misogynist and sexualized violence often intertwine.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that four people of Korean descent were among the victims. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was already in Seoul on a diplomatic trip, said Wednesday that he was “horrified by this violence” and offered “deepest condolences to the families and friends” of the victims.

The Biden administration has struck a different tone than did former president Donald Trump, who critics say stoked anti-Asian sentiment with inflammatory rhetoric regarding the coronavirus, which he often called the “China virus.” The pandemic has stoked anti-Asian sentiment in a number of Western countries.

Eight killed, including six Asian women, in Atlanta-area spa shootings; suspect arrested after manhunt

“The pandemic has thrown into relief some of these latent forms of discrimination that have always been there and previously might have been expressed as microaggressions and very mundane forms of prejudice,” said Jooyoung Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. “I think we have this perfect storm where those microaggressions are turning into forms of violence, forms of more overt harassment.”

For months, Twitter users around the world have been using the hashtag #StopAsianHate to share experiences of racism and call for an end to discrimination. Following Tuesday’s shooting, social media sites once again flooded with reaction from the United States and around the world.

Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, has documented a marked rise over the past year in anti-Asian incidents. Asian women have disproportionately borne the brunt of abuse.

Asian Americans in Atlanta stunned by shootings as advocates demand action: ‘Everyone has heard enough words’

“Historically there is this belief among men, and more specifically White men, that they are entitled to the attention and affections of Asian women,” he said.

While some localized dynamics may differ, it’s a trend seen across Western countries: The U.N. Human Rights Council in October released a report warning of an “alarming level” of attacks against people of Asian descent since the coronavirus began to spread.

At the start of the pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 21 percent in Britain, a U.K. government report found in May. Last spring and summer, Asian communities in Australia reported a similar rise in racist incidents, such as people of Asian descent being spit on, physically assaulted and told to stay inside or go back to Asia. Asian women reported more incidents of abuse than men.

“What happened in Atlanta is not an isolated incident, but a horrific example of a large rising tide of anti-Asian racism,” a coalition of Canadian advocacy groups, including the Chinese Canadian National Council’s Toronto Chapter and Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network, said in a statement Thursday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

In Canada, Lee said, many White Canadians “say we don’t have the same problems” as in the United States, citing the country’s embrace of multiculturalism. “Those myths that Canadians tell themselves obscure, they hide a lot of the everyday forms of violence and discrimination that Asian people experience in Canada.”

Wednesday afternoon, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed solidarity in a tweet. “Over the past year, we’ve seen an increase in acts of racism against Asian Canadians,” he wrote. “This ignorant, violent, and discriminatory behavior has no place in Canada — or anywhere in the world. We must continue to stand united against it.”

This report has been updated.