Racism, misogyny, guns and religion: Experts call Atlanta "an unmistakable American stew"

Was it a racist hate crime, a misogynist attack or religious fanaticism? Experts suggest they're all connected

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 23, 2021 9:00AM (EDT)

Police tape is seen outside a massage parlor where a person was shot and killed on March 16, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. - Eight people were killed in shootings at three different spas in the US state of Georgia on March 16 and a 21-year-old male suspect was in custody, police and local media reported, though it was unclear if the attacks were related. (ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP via Getty Images)
Police tape is seen outside a massage parlor where a person was shot and killed on March 16, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. - Eight people were killed in shootings at three different spas in the US state of Georgia on March 16 and a 21-year-old male suspect was in custody, police and local media reported, though it was unclear if the attacks were related. (ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Tuesday, a 21-year-old white man named Robert Aaron Long apparently went on a shooting spree, killing seven women and one man at three spas in the Atlanta area. Six of the women are of Asian ancestry.

Like so much that goes wrong in America, this is a tragic story of gun culture, religion, race, sex, violence and politics.

On the surface, it certainly appears as if Long committed a hate crime targeting the Asian and Asian-American community. One Korean newspaper has reported that at one spa an eyewitness heard Long say he was going to "kill all the Asians".

These killings are also part of a much larger pattern of violence against Asians and Asian Americans inspired by Donald Trump, the Republican Party, the right-wing "news" media and their eliminationist rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic and its origins in China.

Long told police that he wanted to "eliminate" the source of his sexual temptations and supposed sex addiction, impulses that were contrary to his so-called Christian values. As has been widely reported, he belongs to a right-wing Baptist church that has sought to indoctrinate congregants with hostility to non-whites as well as women.

For whatever reason, Long identified Asian women as the embodiment of his "sins." His confession to police would seem to reflect a racist trope that Asian women are a compliant, submissive, seductive and highly desirable Other. In the American popular imagination, Asian women are also commonly associated with sex work. (Whether these specific women were involved in sex work is not clear.) Long's alleged crimes illustrate the ways that white supremacy involves a complex mix of desire, loathing, obsession and hatred for the nonwhite Other.

Long has reportedly denied that race was a motive in his actions.

Following the American cultural script, when a white person — nearly always a man — engages in a mass shooting or other act of large-scale violence, police and opinion leaders often attempt to humanize the assailant, especially if the victims are not white.

In this instance, the Cherokee County sheriff's police captain who acted as a spokesperson on the day of the murders told reporters and the public on Wednesday, speaking about Long: "Yesterday was a really bad day for him".

Capt, Jay Baker promoted T-shirts online that featured racist "kung flu" jokes about the coronavirus. After his remarks about Long, Baker was removed from his responsibilities as spokesperson.

Long bought the gun that was apparently used in his murder spree earlier that same day.  

Because of the Republican Party's voter suppression campaign targeting Black voters, it is almost certainly easier to buy a gun in Georgia than to exercise one's constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.

In an effort to better understand the context and implications of the Atlanta murder spree and apparent hate crime, I asked several leading experts from a range of backgrounds for their thoughts on what this tragic event reveals about America in this historical moment.

Their comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Dr. Bandy Lee is a forensic psychiatrist and internationally recognized expert on violence at the Yale School of Medicine. She is also the editor of the New York Times bestseller, "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President."

Mental health professionals warned of Donald Trump's psychological danger, among which is his tendency to project his own unacceptable actions onto others, as he did when he scapegoated Asians through derogatory phrases such as, "Chinese virus" and "Kung flu." Just as his dehumanization of immigrants and desperate migrants led to unprecedented hate crimes and mass shootings, we are now seeing escalating violence against Asian-Americans, with about 3,800 complaints of harassment or violence being filed in less than 12 months.

The Trump presidency was a public health emergency from the start, and violence is a societal disorder. While individual motives may vary, of greater significance is the cultural shift that pushes vulnerable individuals into violence where previously they may not have been.

The Jan. 6 insurrection, the mass killing of Asian-Americans and the reign of white supremacist terrorism and intimidation are all interrelated and exacerbated due to a former president being so "successful" in avoiding repercussions for his actions. Unless there is vigorous curtailing and delegitimizing of Trump's actions and influence, even this late, I fear that the groundwork for a violent culture that will give rise to epidemics of violence has already been laid, and the attacks in Georgia are only a prelude.

Robert P. Jones is CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute. He is also a leading scholar on religion, politics and culture and the author of "White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity" and "The End of White Christian America."

One of the hardest things for white Christian churches to come to terms with is their own role in fostering, protecting and perpetuating white supremacy. But the testimony of history and the witness of contemporary public opinion data tell a disturbing story about white Christianity's inability to separate itself from white supremacy, both in the past and the present. The Atlanta murderer was a baptized member of a Southern Baptist church. He played drums in the worship band, was active in the youth group and his father was a lay leader, according to media reports and the church's social media pages that have now been deleted or made private. An Instagram profile that appears to be his has this tag line: "Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life. It's a pretty good life."

The Southern Baptists happen to be not only the largest white evangelical denomination but the largest single white Christian denomination of any kind in the country. They have been one of the chief forces providing moral and religious cover for white supremacy as it expressed itself in slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation of both public spaces and sanctuaries, notorious practices such as convict leasing programs, and voter disenfranchisement.

The current dynamics in white Christianity — its unwavering support for Trump, its opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement — cannot be understood without understanding the above context. This also applies to understanding the role white evangelical churches played in shaping the worldview of people like the Atlanta murderer.

It is notable that the Atlanta murder's home church belongs to a group called Founders Ministries, which explicitly claims that "white fragility is pro-racism," calls critical race theory "godless and materialistic ideologies," and equates women preaching with abuse.

This rejection of critical race theory is a recent defensive move by conservative white Christian churches to defend against calls to examine their own troubling histories on issues of race. The emphasis on distinct gender roles is part of that same larger Christian worldview that read a racial and gender hierarchy back into the Bible: white over non-white, men over women.

It also fuels a "purity culture" that portrays women as objects of temptation to men and often charges them to be responsible for regulating men's sexual desires, teaching that men are biologically hardwired for arousal and women are simultaneously morally dangerous and morally responsible for behaving in ways that keep those male desires in check. Church has far too often been an exercise in harnessing the gospel message, however awkwardly, to pull the wagon of white male power.

Finally, we should take seriously conservative white Christian churches' own claims about the power of Christian formation and discipleship. Their emphasis on the importance of attending church depends on the premise that what goes on inside the sanctuary has the power to shape congregants' lives outside the sanctuary. The ultimate responsibility for these horrific murders lies with the murderer. But if we white Christians believe what we say about the power of churches to shape lives and actions, he did not commit these atrocities in a vacuum, but among a great cloud of witnesses who helped create a worldview in which these actions made sense.

Minh-Ha T. Pham is an associate professor in the graduate program in media studies at Pratt Institute. Her writing and analyses have been featured in The Atlantic, The Nation, the New York Times, and The New Republic. Her most recent book is "Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging."

A white man set out to, in his own words [as reported by the Korean newspaper the Chosunilbo], "kill all Asians," and then shot and killed six Asian-American women. It's a horrific but not exceptional event. The immediate context is the spate of anti-Asian racist violence and scapegoating we've seen throughout this pandemic year.

But his actions also reflect a broader pattern of the racist sexualization of Asian women by military imperialist forces in Asia, including Korea, where at least some of his victims are from, by media industries that are only able to imagine Asian women as sexually compliant objects, and by domestic policies beginning with the Page Act of 1875 which specifically prohibited Chinese women from immigrating based on a widespread assumption that Chinese women were likely prostitutes or otherwise morally and sexually deviant. (The Page Act was the first time a group of people had been excluded from immigration based on their social identity.)

I believe that people are having a hard time seeing these murders as an act of racism because for many people, anti-Asian racism is a new idea. Many non-Asians are not aware that Asians experience racism or that different Asian groups often experience different kinds of anti-Asian racism (from xenophobia to linguistic racism to sexualized racism). So when something as jarring as this happens, Asian Americans — like all groups that experience racial violence — get put in the terrible position of having to work through their own feelings of fear and anger about the racialized attacks while being subjected to all the media and social media gaslighting that says the racialized terror we're feeling doesn't actually exist. And this gaslighting only perpetuates racialized violence. Right now, it feels never-ending.

Anthea Butler is a professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new book is "White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America."

What this terrorist's murder spree shows is how the confluence of evangelical religion, racism, sexism and gun worship came together to make an unmistakable American stew of frustration, anxiety and hatred. I wish I could feign surprise, but after listening to evangelical and conservative Christian preachers speak about sexuality and guns, I'm not surprised that this man decided to kill the women he thought were responsible for his "sexual sins," rather than taking responsibility for his own sexuality and desires.

The "pornography made me do it defense" is an evangelical belief that pornography degrades the mind, that will be used by law enforcement and others to obscure the racial foundations of this crime. The reality is that this perpetrator should be charged not only with murder but hate crimes as well. 

Chrissy Stroop is an ex-evangelical advocate, speaker and writer. She is co-editor of the essay anthology "Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church." Stroop's work also appears at Religion Dispatches where she is a senior correspondent.

It has been reported that Aaron Long would spend hours consuming porn, which led to his parents kicking him out of the house. While this may indicate a real problem with dysregulation and compulsion, there is still no agreement among mental health professionals that "porn addiction" or "sex addiction" is a valid diagnosis. Even if the medical establishment should eventually come to the consensus that such a diagnosis is valid, obviously it would not justify murder.

Most likely, Long's sex drive was normal, but the repression and misogyny inculcated in him through socialization in evangelical purity culture warped his thinking about sex. I am not arguing that purity culture is more important to understanding the Georgia spa murders than systemic racism or sexism, but as many ex-evangelicals raised in purity culture immediately understood when we began to learn about Long's religious life, it is a piece of the puzzle. Indeed, purity culture is grounded in the white supremacism that pervades white evangelical subculture. It has roots in American anti-blackness and the associated tropes that date back to before the Civil War and, before that, to European culture.

The American understanding of sexual "purity" is impossible to disentangle from its roots in fears of "miscegenation" and calls for white men to protect white women from black men — although the white men themselves were often a danger to the white women around them. We see the results of this in the abuse scandals currently racking the Southern Baptist church. Fetishization of Asians is also common in white evangelical subculture. In the Georgia murders, we see the confluence of multiple ideological streams that allowed Long to dehumanize his targets.

Jared Yates Sexton is a political commentator and analyst. He is the author of "The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage." His new book is "American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed Its People."

The tragedy in Atlanta, not to mention a constellation of related and similar tragedies that we've experienced, is an encapsulation of a society that is eating itself and in constant, relentless denial. The threat of white supremacy, patriarchal oppression and the weaponized faith of the evangelical right, is an existential threat. Until we can see how they interact, inform one another and permeate society, these terrible tragedies are going to continue to happen and even grow in scope and frequency.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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