lisa ling
Lisa Ling: Like open season on people who look like me, my parents and my children
06:10 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Euny Hong is the author of “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success” and “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World through Pop Culture.” Her books have been translated into more than 20 languages. She tweets @euny. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

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At an office where I worked some years ago, a male co-worker would repeatedly stop by my desk and interrupt my work to talk about sex. One of my colleagues, who got fed up overhearing this, made a sexual harassment complaint on my behalf to the human resources department (without my permission, not that I cared). I got called in by HR and was told: “I have heard your complaint about racial discrimination. I think it is invalid.”

Euny Hong

Huh? I hadn’t said anything about race, nor (as far as anyone ever told me) had my colleague who had reported the “talking about sex” behavior. The HR staffer then started to say something about sex discrimination, which I hadn’t mentioned either. Then this person said that there was a separate procedure for each of these complaints and that I had to pick one. HR was attempting to claim, metaphorically speaking, that the crime scene was too messy to investigate. In other words, the company was pulling a classic magician’s trick: misdirection.

With the recent shooting at three spas in Atlanta, Georgia, in which eight women — six of whom were Asian — were killed, a similar dynamic appears to be at play, but on a significantly more serious scale. Days after the shooting, local law enforcement has yet to call this a hate crime. Instead, they have been shuffling around several potential — and inaccurate — labels like a shell game on a street corner. The alleged shooter told police essentially that he was suffering from horniness (apparently the kind that only a gun could fix?), and got up on the wrong side of the bed — don’t know. The result? Misdirection.

Protesters rally in Washington, DC to call attention to Asian-American discrimination and remember the Asian-American lives lost in a series of shootings in Atlanta.

To be absolutely clear, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has done the right thing, telling CNN, “It looked like a hate crime to me.” But, as far as her city’s law enforcement is concerned, “we are just not there as of yet,” in the words of Rodney Bryant, the acting chief of the Atlanta Police Department. FBI director Christopher Wray echoed the APD’s stance, telling NPR in an interview published on Thursday, “(I)t does not appear that the motive was racially motivated. But I really would defer to the state and local investigation on that for now.”

A captain with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office referred to Robert Aaron Long’s alleged sex addiction as a possible motive. Capt. Jay Baker offered in a press conference Wednesday that the confessed shooter’s motive seemed to be lust: “a temptation … that he wanted to eliminate.” Baker has since been removed from the case, but the damage is done. He’s already used his influence to sell — on national TV — the standard cocktail of sexual fetishism, Asian females and “provoked” violence.

Remarks such as Baker’s imply that the victims were sex workers, even though Bottoms stated that the spas were legally operating businesses with no police records of wrongdoing. Besides which, who cares what a person’s job is at the time of their slaughter? If you think that having a “respectable” occupation can spare you from a wanton murder spree, please tell your kid that if there’s a school shooting, they should show the shooter their student ID.

Do not let them confuse you.

Did Long have other motives besides race? “Yesterday was a really bad day for him,” Baker told reporters Wednesday, by way of explaining Long’s alleged actions. What a compassionate mensch this Baker is. His was a display of empathy in the true sense the word. As has since been widely reported, Baker’s social media appears to have been plugging T-shirts last year bearing the slogan, “Covid-19: Imported Virus from Chy-na.” The account that posted it has been deleted, and when contacted by CNN about the post, Baker told CNN, “No additional comment.”

You see what’s going on here, right? As the late writer Toni Morrison famously said in a 1975 lecture on race, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work … It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. Its purpose … to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy.”

The Atlanta killings come on the heels of a growing spate of anti-Asian attacks taking various forms; some violent and random, some verbal and vengeful. I could name them, but after a certain point, it’s just an exercise in seeing how high you can count. It’s tempting to want to just stop and turn away. Which is exactly what hate crime skeptics want you to do — detach from the human reality.

The watchdog group Stop AAPI Hate, which started tracking anti-Asian attacks shortly after the Covid pandemic began, released a report just before news of the Atlanta shooting broke. The group received 3,795 complaints of racism and discrimination since this time last year. And according to a study of police data released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, hate crimes against Asian Americans in 16 US cities rose 149% in 2020 over the previous year. New York City saw an alarming 833% rise during the same period.

But if the past 12 months have taught us anything, it’s that an alarming number of people are unmoved by statistics and facts. Anti-maskers made it very clear what they thought of graphs charting Covid cases or scientific research linking mask use to Covid prevention.

Along similar lines, when it comes to anti-Asian hate crimes, an abundance of evidence doesn’t seem to matter to too many people.

This is how it goes. People want proof a hate crime has been committed. You provide proof. They say your proof is “anecdotal.” You ask how many racial bias incidents it would take for them to be embarrassed by the word “anecdotal.” They shift the subject: The shooter doesn’t hate Asians; he hates women. No, he doesn’t hate women, exactly, he hates how they make him feel. Are you saying sex addiction isn’t a real malady? What about Bill Clinton?

Before you know it, you’re too angry and tired to continue. And they win.

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    So what can you do? How can you help? Morrison’s advice goes for everyone, regardless of background: Recognize when someone is creating a distraction and call them out on it. As tempting as it is to get caught up in ancillary arguments that are designed to put you on the defensive, keep asking the hard questions, and do not deviate. Don’t waste your sleuthing skills to get to the bottom of whether the women were sex workers; don’t get caught up on ontological debates about whether this shooting was more about sex or more about race.

    When people are trying to distract you by tossing around lots of small questions, it’s usually because they are hiding one big, billboard-sized neon sign of a question.

    Resisting distraction is not just for marginalized groups. Anyone, regardless of background, can take the advice of Robert Owen, the 19th-century Welsh industrialist, philanthropist, social justice warrior — and white dude: “Don’t argue. Repeat your assertion.” Or in this case, repeat your question: How is this not a hate crime?

    Ask until you get your answer.