By Ben Jealous
What does it say about our country when we don’t have time to absorb the impact of one mass shooting before news of the next one comes across our phones and TV screens?
Grief upon grief.
This column is not about gun culture or laws that make it easier to buy an assault rifle than to register to vote. We need to talk about those things.
But we also need to pay attention to one response to the Atlanta spa killings: the way some conservatives rushed to insist that race and racism had nothing to do with the murders. It is true that the man who confessed to the Atlanta killings said they were not racially motivated. He reportedly told police that he was struggling with a “sex addiction” and the killings were a way to “eliminate temptation.”
There’s a lot in that statement to unpack, and a lot of smart people have been unpacking it over the past two weeks.
Marcela Howell, who leads In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Agenda, was among the Black women who spoke in solidarity after the killings. “While law enforcement officials have announced that the shooter’s motivation was ‘sex addiction,’ we know that sexual violence and racism are often intertwined when it comes to violence against women,” she said in a statement.
“As Black women, we know that our Asian-American sisters are disparately impacted at the intersections of racism, sexism, and xenophobia,” Howell said. There is a long history of bigotry and legal discrimination that directly targeted Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. Over the past year, that hostility was inflamed by bigoted rhetoric from former President Donald Trump describing COVID-19 as the “Kung flu” and warning that if he weren’t reelected Americans would have to learn Chinese.
As Howell and many other activists and scholars have pointed out since the killings, racism in this country is deeply connected to sexism directed at women of color. And racism and misogyny are both intertwined with the history and culture of conservative white evangelicalism in which the Atlanta shooter was apparently steeped. Kathryn Gin Lum, an associate professor of American religion at Stanford University, said the killings reflected “a toxic brew” of racism, sexism, and religion.
That toxic brew has been used to justify anti-Asian laws and stoked anti-Asian violence going back to the 19th Century. Religion scholar Bradley Onishi and others point out that Jim Crow apartheid and anti-race-mixing laws were not only defended as necessary to protect the sexual purity of individual white women, but also the racial and religious purity of White Christian America. Black women and Asian women have often been both fetishized and demonized as hypersexual temptresses threatening the innocence of and purity of white Christian men.
Young people raised in churches that emphasize “purity culture” are taught to have deep shame about their sexual feelings, and girls’ and young women’s bodies portrayed as threats to boys and young men. We don’t yet know, and may never fully understand, just how all these influences combined in the mind of this particular young man who chose to commit multiple murders. But we can and should push back against law enforcement officials, conservative pundits and religious leaders who dismiss the reality of systemic racism or refuse to recognize the ways that women of color are particularly harmed by the mixture of racism and sexism that plagues our culture.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.