Deeper than “hate”: racial violence and the Atlanta shootings

  • March 20, 2021

Race & Resistance

The violence faced by Asian migrant and sex workers is predicated by colonialism, militarism and the border — and policing is part of the problem.

Woman at a rally in support of the Asian community, against hate crimes and white nationalism in Washington Square Park, New York – February 20, 2021. Photo: lev radin /


onday. President Joe Biden’s ICE deports Hieu Huynh and 32 other Vietnamese immigrants.

Tuesday. The 53rd anniversary of the 1968 My Lai Massacre, where US troops slaughtered 500 unarmed Vietnamese men, women, children and elders.

That same day, a white supremacist who allegedly vowed to “kill all Asians” guns down six Asian massage workers in Atlanta, Georgia: Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Kim, Suncha Kim and Yong Ae Yue.

These events are not unrelated.

As Asians in the United States wade through the maddening pain, anger and grief to make sense of this tragedy, it is hard seeing it as anything but the tip of the iceberg after a year of cruel street attacks on the most vulnerable in our communities. While the past year of xenophobic fear-mongering and racist scapegoating have caused this recent spike, anti-Asian racial violence did not start with Trump and COVID-19.

It is urgent that we understand what we are really seeing: the individual expression of misogyny and white supremacy under a cut-throat system of subjugation that devalues Asian lives. The anti-Asian violence we face today stems from a system that sees our only worth as $3.60 an hour, reduces women to sexual objects and has wiped away millions of us in overseas wars — more than any individual racist with a gun could ever aspire to.

Gendered, sexual and imperial violence

We cannot talk about this moment without talking about gender: gendered and sexual violence against Asian women cannot be separated from its long tradition in the American history book. When the shooter and police chalk up the killing of six women to eliminating “temptation” for a “sex addiction,” they are acknowledging their part in the long history of dehumanization and fetishization of Asian women that normalizes everyday violence. The Page Act of 1875, the first restrictive immigration law in the US, banned Chinese women from entering the country by painting them all as sex workers and demonizing sex workers as “immoral.”

Enacted to keep Chinese labor under control, this policy of legalized racism criminalized women who crossed the border. It is no coincidence that Asian sex workers today face a similar criminalization of their existence. Our policed border, used to keep millions without legal residency powerless, was in fact created through sexualizing and demonizing Asian women.

We also cannot talk about this moment without talking about empire: equally relevant to what transpired in Atlanta are the forces that have brought many of us here from our home countries. Cultural depictions of Asian women have a deep history in colonial sexual violence during American wars in countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. These wars displaced countless families like my own, who fled destruction and devastation to find low-wage work in America, trickling into kitchens, nail salons and massage parlors.

Understanding anti-Asian violence means understanding the imperialist violence that killed ten percent of the Korean population during the Korean War. It means identifying it as part of the bedrock that painted Korean sex workers in Atlanta as disposable.

The truth is, our system has always cruelly dehumanized Asian women, migrant workers, sex workers, and those of us abroad as disposable.

And this shooter understood that when he took that violence into his own hands.

More policing is not the answer

As police departments across the country begin to capitalize on this tragedy by increasing patrols in Asian communities, we must firmly reject being used as a cover to expand the already bloated police presence in our cities. Policing has drained community resources away from our most vulnerable: the Atlanta police budget takes up one-third of available city funding, Kansas City’s police department takes 38 percent, and NYPD’s budget is a whopping $4.9 billion.

Campaigns calling for increased hate crime reporting obscure the tenuous relationship police have with Asian workplaces. The sad irony is that for many undocumented workers in places like the Atlanta massage parlors, calling the police was never an option. Through criminalization, immigration raids and collaboration with ICE paved by the Obama-era Secure Communities policy, police departments double as border enforcement to keep workers powerless and compliant. Police already visited the Atlanta spa in 2011 — not to protect workers, but to arrest them.

Police do not keep sex workers safe.

Chinese sex worker Yang Song was killed by NYPD during a targeted raid after a year of sexual assault, harassment and threats of deportation from the police. In my own community, an undocumented family friend never reported her abusive husband’s violence because the alternative would have been worse. Another was deported to China after being pulled over for speeding by an overzealous officer. Since colonial occupation in Asia, our people have been used as the testing ground for expanding militarized policing against Black and brown communities in the US. Policing has never kept us safe from racial violence.

Following the lead of Asian women and sex workers

Then what will keep us safe in the face of very real, ongoing racial violence? White supremacy is not individualized hate, it is a structure, and this truth radically changes our path forward. It means ending US militarism’s extractive and violent relationship with our family overseas. It means fighting for labor rights that are not dependent on criminalization status or legal residency. It means a fundamental rejection of anti-sex worker respectability politics that got us here — to uplift the “unpolished” Asian America of kitchen cooks, massage workers and the incarcerated, whose collective liberation will lead us to true safety and dignity. It means Asians divesting from our anti-Blackness and supporting Black feminist liberation, as dismantling white supremacy for those most affected means dismantling it for all of us.

It means tearing down an entire system that says our lives are not valuable.

Above all, we must listen to and follow the lead of Asian women and sex worker movements who have been at the forefront of resistance against criminalization, police surveillance and state violence. Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Red Canary Song, a grassroots coalition who has organized for Chinese massage parlor workers since 2017, leaves us with actions on which to build our solidarity:

  1. Pay attention to the life and work safety of massage and salon employees!
  2. Asian massage workers and businesses come from the community and give back to the community!
  3. The legal working rights of Asian massage workers must be protected!
  4. The lives of Asian massage workers must not be lost in vain!
  5. The legal profession of massage work should be respected and protected by US society!

Matthew Tran

Matthew Tran is a community organizer and writer living in the American Midwest. His work focuses on abolitionist divestment, political education and solidarity against all state violence.

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