SAVANNAH, Ga. – A day before the shooting deaths of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au took to the floor, urging her colleagues to pay attention to rising anti-Asian violence.
“Recognize that we need help, we need protection, and we need people in power to stand up for us against hate,” she told the legislature.
Au, who is Chinese American, is the first Asian American senator in the state of Georgia. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up about 25% of her district. Meanwhile, the rapidly growing demographic makes up about 4.1% of the total state population.
“Even before this incident on Tuesday, I felt that responsibility. They were hungry for representation,” Au later said in a phone interview with the USA TODAY Network. . “Part of that is why I spoke out about violence against our Asian American communities even before this incident happened.”
When Au saw that a trio of shootings took place at three different massage spas in Cherokee County and Atlanta, she was “really shaken up” at how prescient her words became, but acknowledged racism, discrimination and violence is happening all the time and everywhere.
“It might not have been on this scale, it might not have been a mass shooting,” Au said. “This is not necessarily a big city problem. This is not a coastal problem. This is a problem that’s taking place all across the country.”
During a press call hosted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, Aisha Yaqoob, executive director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, also noted the growing Asian American community in metro Atlanta suburbs.
“Our communities have changed and we’re hoping Georgia will change along with it,” said Yaqoob.
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Au added: “Georgia is a microcosm of change nationally … we are at this point of tension where a lot of change is taking place very quickly, and, when there’s a lot of churn, a lot of things can happen.”
In recent months, there’s been a slew of stories documenting anti-Asian violence, though most of the coverage has centered on places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, where the Asian population is ostensibly larger. Au said framing these incidents as an L.A., San Francisco or New York issue, “lets people off the hook” and “lets people in states like Georgia feel like it’s not a problem for them or that they’re immune to this type of incident or violence.”
The recent tragedy shines a light on the very significant and growing Asian population in metro Atlanta, Au said. She added this type of violence, on different scales, is everywhere.
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Earlier this week, a report from Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition formed in the wake of intensifying anti-Asian crimes during the pandemic, documented nearly 3,800 reports of discrimination (which includes verbal harassment, physical assault, civil violations and online harassment) between mid-March 2020 and the end of February. Hate incidents rose by nearly 150% in 2020 while overall hate crime dropped 7% according to a report by Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism .
Within this statistic, however, 68% of incidents were reported by women, a fact that has frequently been spotlighted within the context of the spa shootings. Seven of the eight victims were women.
Though law enforcement have yet to determine the killings as a hate crime, many, including Au, believe, as history has dictated, racism and misogyny are intertwined, especially when it comes to perceptions of Asian women.
“We want to be careful in how we talk about things preemptively,” said Au, but in this situation “it’s not so easy to say it’s not racial… because how we see these women is through the lens of race.”
A community statement from Advancing Justice Atlanta addressed the issue as well.
“The hypersexualization of Asian American women and the broad normalization of violence against women of color, immigrant women, and poor women make Asian American women particularly vulnerable,” the statement said.
Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker drew swift backlash for his characterization of the Atlanta shootings at a press conference. Baker, who was also found to have promoted t-shirts with racist language about China on his Facebook page, was removed from the case.
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“You don’t have to have a crime that’s either racially motivated or motivated by gender. I think often, in fact, it’s both things,” said Au, who pointed to the disproportionate number of female victims in the Stop AAPI Hate Report.
Au said she hopes to see increased awareness and for national leaders — not just the Asian community — to stand up and speak to this issue.
President Joe Biden’s administration has taken a “notably different step” in how it is talking about discrimination, Au said. The fact that Vice President Kamala Harris is the first Asian American woman in her position of power “will inform what stories get told too,” Au said.