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the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As Attacks Spike, Anti-Asian Violence Gets Lost in Translation

In America, everything is always about something else — even when it’s not.

Julie Tran holds her phone during a candlelight vigil in Garden Grove, California, on March 17, 2021 to unite against the recent spate of violence targeting Asians and to express grief and outrage after Tuesday's shooting that left eight people dead in Atlanta, Georgia, including at least six Asian women.

Julie Tran holds her phone during a candlelight vigil in Garden Grove, California, on March 17, 2021 to unite against the recent spate of violence targeting Asians and to express grief and outrage after Tuesday's shooting that left eight people dead in Atlanta, Georgia, including at least six Asian women.  (Photo/APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

Sometimes it’s where you’re from that sets up the initial perception of what you’ve done, no matter how horrific it is.

Robert Aaron Long is a 21-year-old “devout Christian,” according to his friends and fellow congregants at Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Ga.

Like many committed Southern Baptists struggling with the challenges and expectations of a purity culture that demands chastity until marriage, Robert Long has turned to both Jesus and guns with a holy passion.

On Tuesday, Robert Long killed eight people and injured a ninth in a shooting rampage that spanned the Atlanta area. Six of his victims were Asian women, one was a white woman and the other a white man. A Hispanic man was injured but is expected to make a full recovery.

Long became the latest mass shooter taken alive into custody by cops who never seem to be in a hurry to shoot white gunmen. We have no word on whether he was remorseful or if the arresting cops made a stop for fast food on the way back to the precinct house in a reprise of the way the cops escorting 21-year-old Dylann Roof did after he murdered nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

If Robert Long were from Karachi, Pakistan, and not the Atlanta suburbs, the headlines would’ve screamed some variation of the following the next day: “Islamic extremist kills 8 in hate-fueled shooting spree” — and folks would’ve been very unapologetic about it.

Instead, we were treated to far more nuanced headlines than what Robert Long deserved. In characterizing the suspect’s motives, authorities took into consideration his self-exonerating insistence that his reasons for killing were rooted in a desire to stymie his “sexual addiction” and not racial animus toward Asians per se.

Sure, three Asian-run spas were singled out for a massacre that looks suspiciously like ethnic intimidation, but in America, correlation does not imply causation, especially when gun-toting Caucasians are involved.

As it stands, Robert Long will face eight murder counts in a state that has the death penalty, so he isn’t going to walk free even if he is never charged with a hate crime. The problem is that the way American laws are constructed, it is difficult to file hate crime charges (and make them stick) against those who harass, victimize and kill Asian Americans, even when the crime is as blatant as the Atlanta shootings at three Asian American businesses.

One need only remember the miscarriage of justice that surrounded the killing of Chinese American draftsman Vincent Chin at a strip club in Highland Park, Mich., in 1982.

Mr. Chin was enjoying his bachelor party at the club when he got into an argument with two white men who resented Japan’s gains in the American auto market. They mistook the Chinese American and his friends as Japanese and poured out the kind of anti-Asian invective that has come back into vogue in the past year during the pandemic.

The argument spilled out into the parking lot where the autoworker assailants, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, beat Mr. Chin to death with a baseball bat. The duo, who claimed they were acting out of a sense of economic anxiety — not racism — were charged with second-degree murder, but successfully bargained it down to manslaughter a year later.

Neither received jail time, but they were ordered to pay $3,000 each and undergo three years’ probation for their trouble. They claimed they never used racial epithets in the fight, contrary to what Mr. Chin’s friends testified. The authorities took their word over the victims’ testimonies. Federal hate crime laws didn’t exist at the time.

“These weren’t the kind of men you sent to jail,” Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman said about handing down the lenient sentences for Ebens and Nitz. “You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”

It should be noted that initially the local American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups failed to see Mr. Chin’s killing as a violation of his civil rights because the anti-Asian narrative in the Detroit area was so strong at the time.

To embrace the Vincent Chin case was to go against the prevailing sentiment in the rapidly collapsing Rust Belt — working-class whites wracked by economic insecurity get a pass when it comes to anti-Asian violence and racism.

The Detroit chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and American Citizens for Justice summoned the courage to fight for Mr. Chin and managed to get federal civil rights charges filed against Ebens and Nitz in 1984. Mixed verdicts and appeals led to Nitz being acquitted of all charges followed by Ebens in 1997.

Despite stunning victories in federal court, neither could escape civil suits from Mr. Chin’s family. To date, Ebens is still liable for $4 million in damages to the Chin estate, but his autoworker pension and retirement pay can’t be garnished. That’s why the Vincent Chin killing and its unsatisfactory aftermath is considered one of the most dramatic miscarriages of justice in American law. It demonstrates the inequitable treatment of Asian Americans when it comes to bias crimes against them. Even when hate crimes laws exist, how do you get them applied if every potential culprit exonerates himself by saying he/​she has nothing against Asians?

From the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump administration never lost an opportunity to remind Americans that the “China flu” or “Wuhan flu” or “Kung flu” was responsible for shutting down the economy. Assaults and the intimidation of Asian Americans spiked by 150% as Mr. Trump’s moronic parakeets echoed his scapegoating of ethnically diverse communities.

Mr. Trump may be out of power, but the malignant racism he and his administration released on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community is still very much a part of the nation’s bigoted psyche. As recently as Tuesday night, Mr. Trump was on Fox News blaming the “China virus” for undermining and mostly shutting down the economy on his watch. Of course, he wouldn’t take any blame for the racist fallout from his words.

Already, the narrative on the right is that what happened in Atlanta has nothing to do with the dramatic uptick in violence against Asian Americans. That particular massacre was the work of a “sexually frustrated” young man who happened to “have a bad day” and took it out on six Asian women and two whites. Where’s the racial animus in that? And whatever you do, don’t start your whining about the easy availability of guns and the increased radicalization of white men.

Just as the Civil War was more about state’s rights than slavery for many right-wingers, an obvious act of racist killing that resulted in the marking of Asian women for death was “about something else.” Heaven forbid if this country gets another charge of wanton tolerance of racism lodged against it, especially during a pandemic when we’re especially susceptible to long-overdue pangs of conscience. The next thing you know, we’ll all be marching for the “rights” of another group with a grievance.

In America, everything is always about something else — even when it’s not.

Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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