Following the horrific mass shootings in the Atlanta area this week, people have been trying to make sense of why and how an individual could kill a number of people, apparently targeting women of Asian background. Our need to make sense of something like this serves two very strong needs for all of us: First, the need to make sense of our world and the events in it, and second, the need to assure ourselves of safety in a physical as well as a social sense.
Several facts have drawn a lot of notice, but just how they fit together to help explain these murders is a much more challenging task. We can’t know exactly what the shooter was thinking or feeling, despite his statements to the police. But what we do know is this:
- The killings of these women (and the men who happened to be in the same places) came in the middle of a spate of violent episodes directed at people of Asian descent, mostly women, over the past year.
- The former president habitually used mocking and disparaging language about Chinese origins of the coronavirus, which seems to have escalated the acts of hatred and violence against people of Asian descent.
- Anti-Asian prejudice has a long history in the United States, beginning when immigration restrictions were directed at them in the 19th century.
- Asian women have been associated with prostitution since the Korean War, when American soldiers had liberal access to sex for hire, and afterward when many Korean women came to the United States and engaged in sex work, as well as in other service occupations like nail and hair styling, massage services (sexual or nonsexual), and food service. This placed them – along with a large portion of Asians in America – in a working class that was often economically poorer than the communities in which they lived and worked.
- Asian women are often seen by American men as submissive, compliant, exotic, and, in effect, the objects of white men’s fetishes. This, too, goes back to at least the Korean War but even predates that.
- This shooter, a white man who was a long-time member and of a fundamentalist Christian church, believed that he was sinning by going to massage parlors, and externalized his self-loathing (in his own telling) by trying to “get rid of temptation.”
- He had received a faith-based type of rehabilitation for what he described as a “sexual addiction,” which he characterized as overpowering and leading him to a sinful state.
- When he decided to kill people, he went out and legally obtained a gun, despite his self-described history of mental health issues and treatment (such as it was). He had no trouble doing so.
- His church, in turn, reinforced the idea of blaming his actions on his own sinfulness. There was no empathy with, nor compassion for, their member in their response.
- This same church vehemently opposes any expression of sexuality that is not hetero-normative and is not limited to traditional marriage and traditional gender roles. Women are encouraged to be submissive, in this sect.
So how do we fit all of this together? Is it a hate crime? Is it a mental health issue (an addiction)? Is it a gun problem? I think it’s everything at once. Racism provides the backdrop; toxic ideas of masculinity and sinfulness were super-charged by the man’s church; sexual urges combined with a sense of himself as bad and powerless fed the need for vengeance and punishment, which looped back into the racism and classism of the place that Asian women have come to occupy in our society, Trump fed the fire, and our lax gun laws gave him the tool to carry it out.
An intersection of hate and violence. I still stick by Alfred Adler’s view that violence and aggression stem from a sense of not being adequate, whether in a social, sexual, or gendered sense. hate, fear, and violence are the marks of inferiority complexes. And white people have had an inferiority complex that just won’t go away.