Discriminately Indiscriminate Violence

Bloom Briefing 52: On the Anti-Asian Hate Crime in Georgia

English football commentators have a metaphor for situations in which someone acts violently on the field.  They say, “the red mist descended,” as if the player has been momentarily overcome by the red mist, appearing instantly out of nowhere, which has caused him to act in a way he wouldn’t otherwise have done.  It’s a metaphor, however, better for describing the response to rather than the provenance of violence. 

Mist, after all, is something that lingers.  It doesn’t appear or retreat suddenly.  It accumulates and dissipates slowly, so slowly in fact, that you often can’t be sure if it’s coming or going.  And following acts of violence, it sets in slowly, just above and behind the eyes, as if it has descended from the brain.  We might sense it in a matter of minutes, or it might take hours—or even days—before we catch on to its presence. 

Once it arrives, it becomes nearly impossible to make sense of the world.  Ideas we once understood don’t make sense.  Words feel unnatural.  We stare at the chasm between the injustice of reality and universal concepts of fairness as if it is a window into Hell itself: the sheer scale of evil is overwhelming.

Discriminately Indiscriminate Violence

When we look at the spectrum of gun violence, what we find is two important categorical features: how discriminate the violence is (i.e., were specific people targeted?) and how much identity characteristics of the victims played a role in their targeting.

Indiscriminate shootings are things like suicide by cop or shooting up a movie theater or concert.  Some school shootings would fall into this category as well.  In such scenarios, the shooter doesn’t particularly care whom he shoots, just that he shoots.  The shooter may possess some rationale for having selected the target (e.g., going to school there), but to the shooter, the victims are largely an abstraction. 

Contrast this with discriminate shootings.  Most shootings are discriminate, and their unifying feature is that the victims were selected for a reason.  Discriminate shootings include everything from gang violence to robberies to intimate-partner violence to most homicides.

In some instances, particular characteristics of the victims (say, gender, in intimate-partner violence) play a role in why they were targeted.  In other cases (say, gang violence), the reason for targeting the victim has little to do with that person’s race or gender.

In the case of some specific mass-shooting hate crimes, the reason the shooter targets the people he does is almost exclusively because of some immutable characteristic they have.  This is why worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were killed. 

But for every mass shooting like this, there are dozens (hundreds?) more acts of violence where the identity characteristics of the victim played a role, but was not the exclusive reason why they were targeted.  Would police have killed a 12-year-old white boy playing with a toy gun like they did Tamir Rice?  Unequivocally not.  Here, too, I think of the shooting of three Muslim students in North Carolina in 2015.  The proximate cause of their murder was cited as a parking dispute.  But would they have been killed if they were white?  It is unlikely.   

One distinguishing feature of hate-driven shootings is that only some Americans are their targets.  White men have not, in recent American history, been targets of this kind of violence.  If you are white and male, you do not have to worry about being killed simply because you are white and male. 

It is not only this kind of mass violence that white men do not have to fear.  It is also the far more quotidian slights, slurs, and assaults (verbal and physical) that may be visited upon anyone who is more obviously “other.”  By their very nature, these attacks are designed to strip away the humanity from their victims.  The catcall is designed to turn a woman from a person into an object.  The epithet is designed to turn someone from a person into an inhuman other.  The race-based generalization is designed to treat a group of people as mere animals.

One distinguishing feature of hate-based violence is that, to its victims, it does not feel discriminate.  This is for good reason.  It’s discriminateness is only partial.  In such instances, you could be attacked at random on the street simply because of the color of your skin, or because of your attire, or because of the language you are speaking.  Anyone else who meets these same criteria could just as easily have been the target, and so there was no particular reason why you, personally, were subjected to violence. We might call such violence discriminately indiscriminate.

So into a world in which one of the two major political parties regularly slurs Asian Americans by referring to the China-virus or the Kung Flu, a world pockmarked by a rise in violent assaults on Asian Americans, a world in which immigrants are regularly sneered at for speaking with an accent, a world in which one in four women is the victim of severe intimate-partner violence, steps Robert Aaron Long to murder 8 people, including six Asian-American women at Asian-American run massage parlors in Georgia. 

Attack on Asian-Americans in Georgia

On Tuesday this week, Long purchased a gun and then went to three massage parlors he had patronized before and shot the people he encountered there.  Six of the eight people killed were of Asian descent. 

We know that the police have relayed that Long claimed the ethnicity of the victims wasn’t part of his reason for targeting them.  Long had sought treatment for a sex addiction, and came from an evangelical background that prioritized sexual purity.  According to police, Long told them he was trying to eliminate temptation.  We also know that the police officer who relayed that information had posted a photo of himself in a t-shirt slurring Asians on social media last year.  We know that a Korean newspaper interviewed a survivor from one of the massage parlors who claimed Long said, “I’m going to kill all Asians.” 

To date, we have very little other evidence that this was discriminate violence of the specific kind that drove the attackers at the El Paso Wal-Mart and the aforementioned houses of worship.  A number of conservative writers have taken this lack of evidence as an opportunity to claim this simply isn’t a hate crime. 

They harken back to the case of the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which many people falsely believe(d) was selected as a target because it was a gay nightclub.  People took the fact that the shooter was interested in the Islamic State as evidence of his homophobia, but there is actually quite a lot of evidence he didn’t even know it was a predominantly gay club.

However, even if you doubt the veracity of the quote Korean media have attributed to one of the survivors, it is impossible to escape the fact that the ethnicity and gender of the victims played a role in why they were targeted.  It seems exceedingly unlikely that this killer who saw three Asian-American run massage parlors as symbols of sexual temptation didn’t have some pretty retrograde views about Asian women.     

Long may not be a raving anti-Asian bigot, targeting Asian-Americans because of their Asian-ness.  But it is undeniable that the victims’ Asian-ness and gender played a role their targeting.  It may or may not turn out to be the case that Long’s proximate motivations were explicitly racist.  Nonetheless it seems clear that this is a crime motivated and executed—at least in part—based on underlying racist views.

This crime, then, can’t be untethered from the ascendance of seemingly random assaults on Asian-Americans in many pars of the country.  Our Asian-American brothers and sisters feel unsafe because they are increasingly unsafe.  This is not new—waves of anti-Asian sentiment have swept the country before—but they are resurgent.

Out of the Mist

When people say, “the United States is a white supremacist country,” that means, among other things, that people who are not white are subject to this discriminately indiscriminate violence that white people are not subject to.  And as every minority group well knows, no amount of assimilation, of adopting white patterns of speech or dress, of going to white schools, of having high-paying jobs, of joining the country club, of going to church ever fully functions as a bulwark against the racist countrymen who will choose to other us, to slur us, to discriminate against us, or to visit violence upon us. 

The ways that white supremacy others Black folks, Jews, Muslims, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and myriad sub-divisions and intersectionalities between us are all slightly different.  But this experience gives us enough in common that we have a shared sense of each other’s struggle.  It is to this empathy and common cause which we must turn in times of darkness.  The fact that so many of our brothers and sisters have experienced this too means that they are there when the mist descends to guides us through. 

In times like these, I have always found the wisdom of Black writers to be a source of solace, inspiration, and hope.  After all, Black people in American have been overcoming paroxysms of white supremacy for four-hundred years.  To paraphrase Cornel West, the mountaintop may be a mere rhetorical artifact to give us hope, but nor is the task ahead the hopeless struggle of Sisyphus.  A better tomorrow is possible, but only if we work together

Today, we reach out with love and care to our Asian-American friends and family.  We will help guide you through this mist.  Soon—too soon—we will have to turn our attention to a different community confronting yet more white supremacist violence.  Through this repeated practice of empathy and compassion, we bind ourselves together in the shared struggle against white supremacy and thus do the work of building a more perfect union. 

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Additional Reading

For the New Yorker, Jiayang Fan writes about the intersection of race and gender in the dehumanizing of Asian women.  At Vox, Li Zhou writes on a similar topic.

For the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan writes about why “police say” should be treated with the same skepticism as any other source in media coverage.

One story I haven’t seen in the mainstream English-language news is about Mario Gonzalez, the husband of Delaina Ashley Yaun, one of the white women killed in the shootings.  He was at the spa too and survived, only to be arrested by police and denied information about his wife.  I originally saw this story in a Spanish-language publication, but Slate has now picked it up.   

For Mother Jones, Melinda D. Anderson writes about Black parents’ skepticism about returning their children to in-person school.