WASHINGTON — With six of the eight victims killed in recent shootings in Atlanta identified as of Asian descent, Asian Americans and lawmakers across the country have reported increased fear of attacks on their communities, amid an uptick in racially motivated attacks.
The question of motive swirling around the spa shootings is yet to be answered by law enforcement but it has drawn attention to how hate crimes are defined.
The suspect was arrested and charged with murder and assault after shootings at three Atlanta-area spas on Tuesday. Most of those killed were Asian women. But, according to local law enforcement, the suspect has said his alleged actions were not motivated by race.
What is a hate crime?
A hate crime, by definition, includes a motivation rooted in bias, according to the Justice Department. Bias can be based on a victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.
Hate crime laws vary by state as to which aspects of a victim’s identity can form the basis for bias, but race and religion are two of the most commonly found on the books.
These crimes are usually of a violent nature, and may also include threats of violence. The FBI notes hate crimes may be wholly or partially motivated by bias, but that hate alone without the addition of a criminal act is not illegal.
The FBI says it “is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”
The Department of Justice adds:
“Hate crimes have a broader effect than most other kinds of crime. Hate crime victims include not only the crime’s immediate target but also others like them. Hate crimes affect families, communities, and at times, the entire nation.”
Reports of attacks against Asian Americans have increased amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the group Stop AAPI Hate tracking nearly 3,800 incidents of hate, discrimination or attacks on Asian Americans from March 2020 through February 2021.
Hate crime law in Georgia
The state of Georgia had been one of a few states without any hate crime legislation protecting specific groups up until last summer, after Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery was shot by armed white men. The law added penalties for crimes motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability. It also mandated the collection of data on hate crimes.
Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming do not have hate crime laws, along with American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the DOJ.
Lawmakers have called for national action in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, with Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, urging the passage of legislation that would improve hate crime reporting and create a national day to speak out against anti-Asian hate later this month.
The attacks are “beyond terrifying,” Chu said, “but it just brings home to so many Asian Americans that they are fearful of their lives and circumstances.”
A House panel is set to hold a hearing on Thursday to address the rise of anti-Asian hate and discrimination, and the shootings could spur action on new hate crimes legislation.
Were the Atlanta killings racially motivated?
Despite a motive not yet being determined by investigators, Asian Americans across the country have expressed fear and concern in the wake of an uptick in anti-Asian violence over the last year.
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Wednesday that the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, Georgia, told authorities that his actions were not racially motivated and that he had a sexual addiction.
Investigation into the motive and other aspects of the crime is ongoing.
Even if the motive was not based on race, its effects have reverberated into Asian American communities in Georgia and across the country, and experts have said it is hard to separate the killings from the fact that mostly Asian women were targeted.
Given that “Asian American women have been viewed as exotic and feminine objects in U.S. mass media and suspected of prostitution from the earliest U.S. immigration restrictions,” the suspect could easily have viewed Asian American women in the same manner, according to Grace Kao, chair of the Yale University Sociology Department.
“We don’t yet know the motive, but what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain tonight,” tweeted President Joe Biden Wednesday. “The recent attacks against the community are un-American. They must stop.”
Contributing: Nicholas Wu