In the wake of a white man’s slaughter of six Asian women, a white woman and a Latinx male, Atlanta law enforcement personnel charged with handling the tragedy and the inevitable media stampede seemed uncertain, indeed confused, about how to categorize the massacre.
Were these racially motivated murders like avowed white supremacist Dylan Roof’s slaughter of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, SC? Was it a twisted misogyny, driven by uncontrollable sex urges as the killer claimed? Or was it the hallucinogenic machinations of a mentally ill person in possession of an assault rifle?
When the killer did not voice anti-Asian sentiments in his statements to police, the police seemed to believe that racial animus couldn’t have played a role, thus conveying to us that the words of this white mass murderer were more persuasive than the known facts, bringing to mind Richard Pryor’s famous line, “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes?”
As women of color who grew up facing the irrational and sometimes physically dangerous racial prejudices of white men that often would be interlaced with lewd commentary, we are not confused by the Atlanta killer’s motivations. It’s not one or the other. It’s all of the above.
For women of color, racism and sexism do not exist in different silos. The rape of slave women reinforced the white plantation owner’s racist and relentless dehumanization of African men. The fetishization of Asian women as exotic and erotic arises from our culture’s breezy objectification of women, but it is always accompanied by portrayals of Asian women as reliably submissive and subservient. It’s dehumanization with a gloss of hagiography.
What race of people in our country’s history hasn’t faced dehumanization and either banishment, exclusion, or near extermination? From slavery to the genocidal wars against American Indians to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to Japanese internment camps to the ghettoization of Black Americans to Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” to mass incarceration, it doesn’t take deep analysis or even a strong historical understanding to know that in these race eradication campaigns women fared very poorly.
So, when we heard Captain Jay Baker, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman’s blasé declaration that the killer had had “a really bad day and this is what he did,” we weren’t shocked. Capt. Baker’s comment, the equivalent of a shoulder shrug, reinforced our experience of the embedded white supremacist power structure of most US police departments.
Baker’s detached, apologist attitude blends seamlessly with law enforcement’s traditional suspicion and consequent oppression of people of color and society’s trivialization of a woman’s primacy in the family and the workplace.
Rather than condemn the massacre, Baker instead relayed to us the feelings of an assassin who eliminated seven women and one man from this Earth.
Consider, if you will, what a police department spokesperson might have said if the people slaughtered were eight white men who, like these massacred women, also had bereaved spouses and children left to navigate their family lives without the love and support of their husbands and fathers. We simply cannot imagine a police media spokesperson giving any reflection to the killer’s rough day.
Is there anyone reading this willing to say or believe that those women’s lives were not as meaningful as the lives of white men who might have been cut down in the same way?
Our former president’s persistent characterization of COVID as the “China virus” or the “Kung flu” and the tepid response of both Republicans and Democrats ensured that the attacks and killing of Asians would increase. Women of color were as sure of that as we are of the fact that women of color will continue to carry our cultures forward and must bear the children who will one day bring peace to our fractured country.
So, we are not confused by the Atlanta killer’s motivations. We have gathered ourselves and drawn our children closer and know that we have to show them that even in our loss and our grief we are undaunted.
Rebecca Young, Niki Solis, and Jane Brown are chairs and co-chair of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Racial Justice Committee and Public Defenders for Racial Justice.