The Race To Focus On Race
If you’ve been anywhere near a screen in the past week, you’ve probably heard that on March 16th, a man named Robert Long attacked two massage parlours in Atlanta killing eight people and seriously injuring another. You’ve also likely heard that six of the eight victims were Asian women. And if you’ve heard that much, you’ve almost certainly heard that the shootings were racially motivated.
“…The Atlanta shooter blamed a specific race of people for his problems and then murdered them because of it. If that’s not racism, then the word has no meaning.”
There’s no arguing with Noah’s logic here. The problem is, what he’s saying isn’t true. Long didn’t blame a specific race for his problems. Instead, as far as anybody currently knows, he attacked the massage parlours because he saw them as an outlet for a sexual addiction that was causing him to “fall out of God’s grace”. Long was specifically asked whether the attack was racially motivated and said no. But we have more than his word to go on.
In 2019, Long shared a room in a halfway house for recovering addicts with a man named Tyler Bayless. Bayless has come forward since the shooting to reveal that Long had been visiting the parlours for years before he attacked them, despite struggling with “a deep feeling of remorse and shame” whenever he did so.
Bayless also confirmed that Long used massage parlours because they were “safer than paying for sex elsewhere”, and not because of the ethnicity of the people who worked there. But despite all this, the media seems desperate to ignore these facts in favour of a racial narrative. Maybe they feel that the murder of eight innocent people isn’t a compelling enough story.
At this point, some of you are thinking, “So what?” Why should we care if a few details are wrong? What’s wrong with highlighting racial injustice whenever possible? Who cares if this particular shooting wasn’t racially motivated when a wave of anti-Asian crime is sweeping America? These are important questions, to which there are two answers.
The first is that if you treat the news like a story, the people who don’t fit the plot are edited out of it. The white man and woman who were murdered have families and loved ones too. We should be just as horrified at their deaths. The Latino man who was injured will relive the trauma of that day long after the rest of us have moved on. Yet given the story’s coverage, you could be forgiven for forgetting they existed.
The Los Angeles Times headline reads: “Police say man charged with killing Asian women and others at spas had ‘sexual addiction’”. The almost fifteen-hundred-word report makes no mention of the race or gender of the “others”. TIME’s headline follows suit: “8 People Killed, Many of Them Asian Women, in Shootings at 3 Atlanta-Area Massage Parlors”. Again, no mention of the race, gender or existence of the other victims. Trevor Noah’s video doesn’t mention them either, yet he mentions the six Asian women four times within the first sixty seconds.
But there’s a second, more costly consequence of leaning into false narratives: if we don’t correctly identify the cause of a problem, we risk creating solutions that do more harm than good. This exact scenario played out in Minneapolis last year.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the narrative was that the police were an existential threat to black lives. The story was so pervasive that in a recent survey, over two-thirds of Americans estimated that over 100 unarmed African Americans were killed by police in 2019. Over 25% of Americans placed the number between 1000 and 10,000. The actual figure was 25. This is still more than twice the number you’d expect on a per capita basis, and more importantly, 25 people too many, but it shows how far the perception of the problem was from reality.
Nonetheless, the perception was enough to inspire calls to abolish the police entirely, and as those calls reached their peak, Minneapolis City council unanimously approved a proposal to eliminate the city’s police department. Over 100 police officers left the force in response, leading to a surge in violent crime. The council then backtracked, but not before homicides rates increased by 50% , leading to 32 more deaths than the previous year.
The most frustrating thing about this move is that it came despite the objections of the black community it was supposed to protect. Whilst most Minneapolis residents were in favour of redirecting a portion of police funding to social services, black voters were more likely to oppose a reduction in the police force than white voters. A group of Minneapolis residents, led by former city council member Don Samuels, even sued the city over the deaths that resulted from the decrease in police presence.
That Minneapolis City council only listened to their citizens when they were dying in the streets is a perfect example of the harm that false racial narratives can cause. The stories we weave from them are so powerful that the truth rarely stands a chance.
One would hope this would go without saying, but one should also know better. So here it is: none of this is an attempt to minimise the violence plaguing the Asian-American community or racial violence in general. Nor is it trying to insist that there was no racial element to Long’s actions. Despite the absolute certainty coming from some in the media, it’s still too early to say what happened or, more importantly, why it happened.
But what we do know is that rushing to describe Long as a racist overlooks the mental health issues, religious fundamentalism, and violence against sex workers that we know are relevant. It ignores the adult industry workers that he was planning to attack next. It minimises the loss of the other victims and the suffering of their families.
This eagerness to apply a racial filter to tragedies erases the victims who don’t fit the story. It obscures the motivations of the criminals. Worst of all, it tempts us to weigh the value of human life in racial terms.
The urgency with which we approach racial issues today can be a good thing. God knows they need to be addressed. But we give ourselves the best chance of doing so when we resist the temptation to put the narrative before the truth.