We’re still learning about the story of Robert Aaron Long, the 21-year-old Georgia man who’s been charged in the shooting deaths of eight people — six of them women of Asian descent. It will take some time to collect the facts but one thing seems very clear: The tragedy sits at the intersection of a number of complicated American experiences, including evangelical teaching on sex, anti-Asian violence, sex work, police work and institutional racism. All of these factors can be working together at once, and the fact that some people are attempting to dismiss one because another one appears to be true just shows how bad we often are at understanding that things can have multiple causes.
There’s much we don’t know. But as police and journalists continue to gather evidence, it’s worth focusing on what we do.
The shootings come in the midst of a rapid rise in racist violence against people of Asian descent in the U.S. Nearly 3,800 hate incidents targeting Asian people were reported last year, and Tuesday’s tragedy sparked an enormous outpouring of grief from Asian communities who are already feeling the threat of rising racial animus, often encouraged by politicians and media figures who stoke racist flames with racist language like “China Virus” or “Kung-Flu” when discussing COVID-19.
The police said the victims at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia were Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng. Four of the victims were ethnic Koreans, according to the South Korean Consulate in Atlanta. The names and nationalities of the four other victims were not yet known as of this writing.
Long himself said the attacks were not racially motivated, telling police he believed he had a sex addiction and was targeting spas as a means of “eliminating” temptation. Of course, his victims were not “temptations.” They were human beings with families, hobbies and dreams that were violently cut short by a man with a gun.
We know a few things about Long’s life. He had been a member of Crabapple First Baptist Church and was on the Youth Student Ministry team in 2018, according to the church’s since-deleted Facebook page. Crabapple is part of a Southern Baptist Convention group called Founders Ministries, which has helped lead the movement to push the SBC into more conservative corners in recent years. The Washington Post notes that Founders has “described ‘white fragility’ as ‘racism’ and called critical race theory ‘godless and materialistic ideologies.’”
The New York Times spoke to Brett Cottrell, who was the youth pastor at Crabapple while Long attended. He described Long as “one of those core young men involved in everything we did.”
“The other kids looked up to him, especially the young ones,” Cottrell said.
“There’s nothing that I’m aware of at Crabapple that would give approval to this,” Cottrell told the Post. “I’m assuming it’s as shocking and numbing to them as it has been to me.”
USA Today spoke with several people who lived with Long at various points, who said he had gone to rehab for a sex addiction and was plagued with guilty feelings about visiting massage parlors. “He felt absolutely merciless remorse,” said one.
“When I saw the headlines, my mind went straight to him, because those were the places he would frequent,” the former roommate continued. “I always thought he’d do something, but I thought he would harm himself, not something like this.”
Long’s story prompted a Georgia sheriff’s deputy named Captain Jay Baker to characterize the shooter’s actions as the product of “a really bad day,” noting that the police department has not yet determined whether or not the shooting was a hate crime. Baker’s comments were widely criticized on social media, especially after Buzzfeed News discovered that Baker himself had promoted t-shirts with anti-Asian messages on them. The shirts quoted the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump, calling the coronavirus a “imported virus from Chy-na.” Baker told people to “place your order while they last.” All of this led to some skepticism about whether or not this department could be trusted to make the call on whether or not this constitutes a hate crime.
Even if we take Long’s comments at face value, the fact that he blamed what he did on a sex addiction does not necessarily mean race was not a factor, especially since he appears to have avoided similar businesses in the areas that were not Asian-owned. Grace Kao, an expert on Asian American studies at Yale University told USA Today that “Asian American women have been viewed as exotic and feminine objects in U.S. mass media and suspected of prostitution from the earliest U.S. immigration restrictions.” This dehumanization can leave women of Asian descent vulnerable to sexual violence in unique and, as we’ve seen, horrifying ways.
Sheila Gregoire is the author of The Great Sex Rescue, and is trying to correct the ways evangelicals are teaching younger generations about sex. “It’s time for the evangelical church to realize that the way we talk about sex and lust and porn poses a danger to women, as the Atlanta shooting all too horrifically showed us – and 8 people, including 7 women, died for it,” she tweeted. Her insightful thread highlighted how many popular Christian books about sex attempt to “protect” men from lust by teaching them reduce women to temptations to be avoided instead of humans to value.
“It is not too much of a stretch to see why someone steeped in this kind of language could see women as the enemy,” she continued. “Especially certain races of women who are often fetishized in pornography. And when they’re the enemy? Then you have to defeat them, with any means necessary.”
We still don’t know how much — if any — of what Long calls a “sex addiction” can be directly linked to his evangelical upbringing, although one former roommate USA Today spoke with said Long attributed his feelings of deep guilt to “his Christian faith.” But all these various threads are important context in the days ahead, since it’s easy to see the many potential causes of this tragedy.
But we need to get this right. It’s an unspeakable tragedy with the lost lives of eight people at its core. There’s a lot we don’t yet know about what led to the murders of Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng and the other victims whose names and stories we don’t yet. But we do know they were made in God’s image.