“HE’S GIVEN PEOPLE MORE PERMISSION TO HARM ASIAN AMERICANS”: TED LIEU ON THE ATLANTA MURDERS AND WHAT TRUMP’S RACIST RHETORIC HAS DONE TO AMERICA
Last Tuesday, a gunman shot and killed eight people at three different spas in the Atlanta area. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent, yet within hours of arresting the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, authorities were seemingly happy to take his word for it that the killings were not motivated by racism but a sexual addiction he wanted to “eliminate,” as though one can’t be a racist and a misogynist simultaneously. (During the same press conference at which the spokesman for the Cherokee County sheriff’s office suggested the alleged murders might not have been motivated by bigotry, he told reporters that Long “was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.” That spokesman was later reportedly found to have shared an anti-Asian post on Facebook.) All of this happened against the backdrop of a year in which Donald Trump used his Oval Office perch to refer to COVID-19 as the “China virus” and “Kung flu,” racist terminology that likely led to a surge in discrimination against Asian Americans.
On Friday, California representative Ted Lieu spoke to the Hive about the Atlanta tragedy, his own experience with harassment, and the impact of Trump and other Republicans’ racist rhetoric on the country.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Vanity Fair: How is it possible that some people believe targeting and killing six people of Asian descent doesn’t constitute a hate crime?
Ted Lieu: It wasn’t even that he targeted three Asian businesses, it’s that he went out of his way to kill Asian women. He went to one Asian business and shot Asians. He then drove 27 miles to a second Asian business and shot more Asians. Then he targeted a third Asian business. So, for law enforcement to say, the day after the shooting, [it] wasn’t a hate crime, it’s way too premature.
Why do you think people are so willing to take the suspect’s word for it that these murders didn’t have to do with racism? Last time I checked racist people don’t just come out and say, “Yeah, I’m racist.”
I’m not sure many Asian American people [are taking the suspect’s word for it]. I think many have a different view because of a shared experience of discrimination. Growing up as a kid, I was called “chink.” Nothing physically violent happened to us, but eggs would be thrown at our home. One time, our car’s tires were slashed. People would make funny sounds to stimulate Chinese language to me. So when Asian Americans see the rise in hate crimes, it’s not surprising to us. Partly because there’s also a history of this. If you look at our country’s history, we had a whole Yellow Peril hysteria followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act and then the internment of Japanese Americans. And then when Japan was rising in the 1980s, you had additional hate crimes, including the murder of Vincent Chin. And now you have this pandemic causing a surge in hate crimes. There was a tendency when our country felt threatened that it would scapegoat minority groups, and Asian Americans were one of them. And that’s coupled with the increasing rhetoric also against foreign countries and sometimes that bleeds over and hurts the Asian American community.
Is it fair to say that Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric is directly linked to the surge in Asian American discrimination over the last year?
Did you watch the hearing [on anti-Asian discrimination]? Professors and expert witnesses cited research that showed clearly that there is a link between the rhetoric of the former president and others who use rhetoric like his, and the increase in hate crimes and hate incidences. One professor made an interesting comment. He said, “Individuals commit crimes, but they’re done in the context of society’s influences.” And when the leader of the free world is using racist statements, that certainly gives people more permission to attack Asian Americans.
People were warning about this for awhile—the Yale School of Medicine came out basically saying, “Don’t use ethnic identifiers describing this virus.” As did the World Health Organization and other organizations for exactly this reason— that it would lead some people to go after the Asian American community. All racism is toxic. But the racism that we’re seeing now is both toxic and just really devoid of any scientific evidence, because there is no evidence that Asians transmit the virus at any higher rate than any other ethnic group. You’re much more likely to get the virus of people who aren’t engaging in safe practices.
Would you say he’s emboldened people to be violent?
He’s given people more permission to discriminate against the Asian American community and that can take a variety of forms. It could be verbal statements, could be physical assaults, but he’s clearly, through his racist language, given people more permission to harm Asian Americans.
Do you think people like Rep. Chip Roy should face any specific consequences for the inflammatory language they use? Roy spent his time during the hearing on Asian discrimination glorifying lynchings.
I’m a strong believer in the First Amendment. I believe people should be able to say stupid racist stuff. Now, the consequences in a functioning democracy would be that the voters would vote out representatives that say stupid racist stuff. And we'll see what happens in 2022.
Are you worried about the fact that a large part of the country thinks it’s great that chip Roy speaks like this?
That is unfortunately the case as well. But when a member of Congress repeatedly says racist, stupid stuff, what ends up happening is they become very ineffective as a member of Congress. You are just going to see [that] not a lot of members of Congress are going to want to work with Chip Roy, you’re going to see as he doesn’t get any legislation through, he doesn’t do anything meaningful in Congress except say stupid racist stuff.
Have you personally felt a shift in the level of harassment in this past year?
It was very clear to me that when the former president started using racist phrases like “Kung flu” and other phrases, you saw people repeat that against me on social media. You saw people telling me to go back to China. When he went after members of Congress and told them to essentially go back to their country, you saw people repeat that on their social media feeds to me. There are a certain number of supporters of Trump that simply repeat whatever he says.
What did you think when you heard the officer who said Long had had a “bad day” had also reportedly promoted racist T-shirts?
I thought that the press conference itself was inappropriate. It was clear to me they hadn’t interviewed all the witnesses and they were taking the suspect’s words at face value, even though often times suspects are very biased in the statements they make. And [the officer] seemed to be suggesting things that he shouldn’t be suggesting when it’s way too early in the investigation. His choice of language was inappropriate. Many of us have bad days. We don’t go to Asian businesses and shoot up Asian employees.
When [the T-shirt stuff] was disclosed and then appeared to have been verified, that it was his Facebook post, it made me not have confidence in the ability of the Cherokee County sheriff’s department to fairly investigate this case with respect to the victims. And it’s not just that [the officer] had this Facebook post; it was up for quite a while. You would assume his colleagues knew about it or may have heard about it, or maybe some of them would have those same T-shirts. So the press conference plus that Facebook disclosure has caused me to not have confidence in the Cherokee County sheriff’s office. I would hope federal prosecutors and investigators would do their own independent investigation. Under the law, there’s a separate federal hate crimes statute that allows the federal investigators [to] have full jurisdiction in this case.