On Tuesday, March 16, a 21-year-old white man shot and killed eight people, including six Asian American women, at three massage parlors in the Atlanta, Ga. area. As has been widely reported, this was a violent case of what has been a rising trend in racism and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the beginning of the pandemic. Though the gunman has been charged with eight counts of murder, officials have yet to charge him with a hate crime upon the perpetrator’s dubious insistence that his sex addiction, not racial bigotry, was the motivation behind his attack.
While the details of this tragedy have been widely covered, and many more have yet to be released or clarified as of this writing, these shootings represent the intersection of some of the most reprehensible trends in the United States today. At this intersection lies both a distinctly pernicious problem worse than the sum of its parts and a powerful opportunity for Princeton and its students to demonstrate truly intersectional activism that is not limited by race, experience, or even academic discipline.
Before examining these systems, it is worth noting that, although this past summer witnessed a worldwide reckoning on race — not to mention one of the most widespread protests in U.S. history — the Asian American community has faced increased racism and harassment by those who felt that Asian Americans were appropriate subjects to blame for the novel coronavirus since it emerged in mainland China. The effects of this rhetoric are now being studied with an understandable urgency.
First, one should not discount the struggles of those battling sex addiction, especially because pornography is a thriving industry that has become more pervasive with the ease of access and the anonymity provided by the internet. On these platforms, Asian women, in particular, are hypersexualized, fetishized, and objectified, blurring whatever line could exist between sexual and racial motivations behind the attack.
Consumers are increasingly conditioned to mistake violent and exploitative interactions for intimacy. Furthermore, studies have shown that repeated exposure to these scenes may actually lead to both aggressive fantasies and aggressive actions. Given how widespread pornography is, it is worth not only acknowledging the mistreatment and violence felt by women in particular but also how much good could be done by engaging with pornography less or not at all.
Combine the above effects with cultures of systemic misogyny and toxic masculinity that normalize both the access to pornography mentioned above and the gradually worsening behavior of men toward women. According to police, the gunman committed these heinous acts to “eliminate” sources of temptation. Rather than accepting responsibility, the gunman perpetuates the sexist idea that women are responsible for the moral failures of men.
Certainly, there are legal precedents and regulations concerning when to charge a criminal with a hate crime, but delaying this charge solely because the perpetrator contends that he was motivated by a sex addition only serves to validate these sexist ideas.
Moreover, just a day after the shooting in Atlanta, 172 Republican representatives, men and women, voted against a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act for reasons that included opposition to closing the “boyfriend loophole,” a step that now prevents dating partners, not just spouses, “convicted of domestic violence or abuse from owning firearms.” Neglecting the obvious potential of this provision to save lives, these representatives felt that showing their supposed defense of the Second Amendment was more important.
Finally, on this point, it is now known that the suspect purchased a firearm only hours before he carried out the attacks. The details about what particular considerations allowed him to bypass a background check are unclear, as is whether the weapon he purchased was the one used in the attack. However, it is certainly concerning that a man as young as or younger than many readers of The Daily Princetonian with alleged addiction problems could purchase a firearm with such little oversight. Gun violence is linked inextricably with domestic violence, an issue commonly faced by women, and yet gun violence itself also represents the result of a haphazard system of gun regulation and enforcement in the United States.
Although we can highlight the separate influences of all three of these systems in this event, there are two ways this analysis should not be used.
First, none of these other systemic realities detract from the inherently racist nature of the attacks. In fact, the relevant hate-crime legislation in Georgia that, as of this writing, has yet to be applied in this case, is only about a year old and was a direct result of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Prior to the passage of this law, Georgia was one of a handful of states without specific legislation for hate crimes.
Second, although systemic, these issues do not inevitably result in what the country witnessed on Tuesday. The shooter still bears the ultimate responsibility for his own actions, and neither sympathy nor justification for his actions should result from this systemic analysis.
Admittedly, this article has been slightly ambitious in its coverage of three systems, any one of which would have provided enough analysis for one piece. However, a systematic view of this tragedy helps demonstrate the most disturbing thing about this shooting: there were so many places where it could have been prevented. Fighting against the grip of pornography, misogynistic culture, or gun violence could have stopped this gunman in his tracks.
It is precisely because these three realities are diverse and pervasive that they demand the kind of intersectional activism and solutions that the world witnessed this past summer. Princeton students naturally come from diverse experiences and unique histories, and each of us has our own preferences and academic or professional interests.
Each of us has a responsibility to act against these and other issues facing our society, not in spite of these differences in interest and experience, but precisely because of them. Princeton students are already uniquely positioned within an interdisciplinary, intersectional space that can be leveraged to proactively solve all the issues mentioned above and more.
As Princeton students, we have the duty to watch out for each other and make each other feel valued and safe. To protect our friends is the highest form of activism and the highest calling that any of us can pursue.
Dillion Gallagher is a sophomore concentrating in the School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.