What Hate Crimes against Asian Americans Reveal about America and the Church
Not an Isolated Event
On one level, the horrific murders of eight people in Atlanta by a young, white male has become a numbingly familiar story in the United States. It spoke to the easy access to firearms in our country to kill innocent people at their workplaces. It also underscored the reality that white men have been the perpetrators in most of the high-profile mass murders that have happened in our country’s recent history.
Despite these realities, we are still prone to think of these incidents as isolated examples of an individual acting alone. In this case, our rationalizations turn to the suspect’s self-identified sexual addiction and that he wanted to eliminate his “temptation.” Jay Parker, a Cherokee County police captain, seemed to accept the rationale wholesale, speculating that the shooter may have acted out in violence because he was having a “bad day” in struggling with his addiction.
Racism and Sexism are Abuses of Power
From the outset, we want to note that Parker’s statement is a misrepresentation of an addict’s struggle. But more critically, while acknowledging that sex addiction is real and serious, both the attribution and rationale serve to support a larger assertion that race was not a motivating factor.
However, racism is not just about an individual’s admission of guilt or intent to harm someone on the basis of race. Rather, distorted racial perceptions often signal underlying, systemic imbalances of power; what happened in Atlanta was both sexism and racism. Of the eight victims – Soon Chung Park 박순정; Hyun Jung Grant [김]현정; Sun Cha Kim 김순자; Yong Ae Yue 유영애; Delaina Ashley Yaun; Paul Andre Michels; Xiaojie Tan 谭小洁; and Daoyou Feng 冯道友 – six of were women of Asian descent and worked in spas and massage parlors.
An Honest Accounting
Massage therapy is a longstanding and honorable therapeutic practice that can be preventative, palliative, and restorative. But massage has also become commercially sexualized and connected to a network of other activities, including human trafficking and the criminalization and exploitation of undocumented workers, many of whom are Asian and Latina women.
These women often come by this work by word of mouth, ethnic networks, and through this work provide for their own families or communities. By virtue of their work, race, class, and gender, they are often vulnerable in position to their male clientele. Even so, despite mainstream reporting on this event, it is unclear whether sexual services were actually solicited at these establishments, and that they may have actually been what they claimed: spas. Regardless, we have a two-fold reality: that the victims should be honored as bearers of the image of God, and that racist and sexist perceptions of Asian women have also been projected into this scenario.
Demand and Supply
The supply, however, is driven by the demand, and the particular white masculine demand for Asian women’s bodies is born from a longstanding American tale about Asian women’s sexuality, specifically in contrast to white women’s virtue.
The 1875 Page Act (named after Horace Page, a California representative) prohibited the immigration of Chinese women into the United States because they were perceived to be prostitutes who would threaten the American domestic order. There were in fact women from China who were trafficked to the United States and tricked into sexual servitude. The legislation’s impact meant that Chinese immigrant men could not establish families in the United States, adding to a prevailing sentiment that they did not belong.
Stories, movies, songs, and jokes emerged from US imperial involvement in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. They specifically gained life from the presence of a sexual cottage industry that evolved in connection with US military life there.
Closer to home, we need to consider how the rise in racism against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community during this pandemic, as tracked by Stop AAPI Hate, has disproportionately impacted Asian American women, and whether connected and stereotypical ideas about their weakness, submissiveness, and docility might contribute to their targeting. We note that the state of California, and more specifically, Los Angeles and Orange Counties, are not immune to this rise in anti-Asian racist attacks, including harassment of families in their places of residence (Ladera Ranch) and threatening, racists letters to elders in their communities (Seal Beach).
Racism, Christianity, and Toxic Masculinity
As news about the shooter’s life and development emerged, we also see another familiar narrative come to light: his Christian faith. Long was a longstanding and active member of his Southern Baptist church community. Evangelicals and progressives alike need to reckon with the kind of formative work we are doing around sexuality, often still couched within and without the church in terms of purity and shame, and how they contribute to toxic masculinity. To understand how toxic masculinity plays a key role in our approaches to sex provides a framework where Long’s act of violence cannot simply be dismissed as the irrational acts of an outlier. It is a cause for auditing the church’s whole approach to sex and sexuality. Simply rejecting the purity culture that persists will not do.
To reduce Long’s actions to his personal “sex addiction” is not only to deny the complex web of anti-Asian racism, sexism, and religion that are at play here, but to say that it is not our problem. What the events in Atlanta clearly reveal is the violent mix of white complicity with histories of anti-Asian racism and sexism.
It Could Easily Happen Here
In Newport Beach and Orange County, it might be easy enough for us to disavow any easy connection with this past week’s events, taking place in another region of the country altogether. We might deny that we share any responsibility in the creation of these particular events and contexts, and the kinds of people involved, and so do not need to commit to the work of racial solidarity, here and now. But it could have just as easily happened here. Moreover, we know the jokes and stereotypes – we may not tell them ourselves, but we may not interrogate them, either.
Tragic Repetition or Redemptive Resistance?
Orange County is the residence and place of work for many of Asian descent; many have established businesses that dot our strip malls and have diverse clientele. Many Asians and Asian Americans gather here at their places of worship; our own presbytery attests to this fact. What do we lose and what do we gain, if we fail to see these events correctly or speak out? Perhaps the tragic repetition of this history itself.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr. SueJeanne Koh, Dir. of Adult Education and Resident Theologian
Rev. Dr. Mark Davis, Pastor, St. Mark Presbyterian Church,
St. Mark and New Hope Presbyterian Churches