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The Atlanta shootings can be both an anti-Asian hate crime and a sexist one

The burgeoning argument over which part of the crime is worst is unhelpful.
Image: Police officers outside a message parlor that has a sign that reads,\"Aromatherapy Spa\" in Atlanta, Georgia.
This was an intersectional hate crime.Elijah Nouvelage / AFP via Getty Images

A young white man is accused of making his way across the Atlanta metro area on Tuesday night, shooting and killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at three spas. It was an act of obscene hatred toward women and Asians, enabled by America’s lax gun laws.

After his arrest, the accused gunman, Robert Aaron Long, told investigators that the attacks were not racially motivated, "that he blames the massage parlors for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex,” the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Wednesday.

There’s a world of unfortunate things to unpack from that line, a process that will take time. It also requires an understanding that this is an intersectional act of hatred, where one strand doesn’t negate the others.

If taken at face value — though, there are a number of reasons not to — the suspect's statement is a declaration of misogyny as an excuse for his alleged actions. It’s the logic of a person who sees women as objects for his own gratification. It’s the logic of someone who sees those victims’ deaths as a requirement for his own salvation. It’s the same sort of dehumanization and hatred toward women that we’ve seen time and time again from men who see violence as the only recourse to deal with their own rejection or shame.

This is an intersectional act of hatred, where one strand doesn’t negate the others.

But the idea that this reported confession means the crime can be entirely disconnected from race is a false one. The places the shooter chose are clearly run by Asian staff and Asian women were the primary victims. There’s a long history of these women, many of whom are just trying to make a living, being demonized both by law enforcement and the very men who make up their clientele. And that their killings took place amid a spike in targeted attacks on Asian Americans means we can’t ignore the context here.

It’s also not even clear at the moment that the spas that were targeted were even involved in sex work. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said they were "legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar." But the connection in the public mind between Asian-owned spas and prostitution is a real one that has placed a burden on the women who work there while letting their clients go without punishment.

Finally, the speed at which the suspect managed to acquire a weapon is sure to renew calls for Congress to pass new restrictions on gun ownership. According to NBC News, officials said he legally purchased the gun used in the attacks just before the shootings — Georgia has no wait period between demanding a gun and receiving one. And while he reportedly possessed a hunting license, the 9 mm handgun police say they recovered is not something anyone who hunts for sport would ever take into the field. He presumably bought this particular gun to be used as a weapon against specific targets. Even the adoption of new federal standards on background checks and “cooldown periods” could have helped prevent this tragedy.

As the Asian American community grieves and the nation as a whole processes what happened, one thing is clear: The Atlanta shootings draw together three of this country's biggest problems — misogyny, anti-Asian hate and lax gun lawsinto a single act of hatred.

The brewing argument over which one of those problems should be our focus, however, isn't helpful.