Asian Americans are the latest victims of white supremacy
Asian Americans have become the latest victims of domestic terrorism. The shooting of eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, in Atlanta is the most horrific incident in a wave of violence directed against this community.
Despite the claim of suspect Robert Aaron Long that he targeted his victims because of his sex addiction, the massacre may have been racially motivated. Racism and misogyny are often linked. Experts note that the way Asian women in the United States are “fetishized, sexualized and marginalized” makes them particularly vulnerable. At the very least the murders have drawn attention to anti-Asian violence, which is part of the larger phenomenon of white supremacy. Attacks on Asian Americans increased 150 percent in 2020, likely due in no small measure to former President Trump describing COVID-19 as the “China virus,” a term he repeated in an interview on FOX News the same night as the spa shootings.
The Atlanta murders fit an all-too familiar pattern. An individual unaffiliated with any group becomes radicalized and lashes out at marginalized people. Robert G. Bowers has been charged with the Oct. 27, 2018, murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The avowed white nationalist reportedly told law enforcement that Jews “were committing a genocide to his people.” His comment echoed the slogan chanted by marchers at the 2017, “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., “Jews will not replace us,” a common trope among white supremacists.
On Aug. 3, 2019, a white man opened fire on a crowd of shoppers at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, killing 22 people. Patrick Wood Crusius allegedly drove more than 600 miles to carry out the attack and said he wanted to “kill Mexicans.” Police believe that he authored a manifesto posted online just prior to the shootings in which he declared, “this attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” once again echoing Trump’s rhetoric.
Despite efforts by apologists to dismiss them as isolated incidents carried out by disturbed individuals, these attacks are manifestations of the same phenomenon: a broad ideological movement that motivates hate groups and inspires unaffiliated individuals. The global war on terror has conditioned Americans to see the terrorist threat embodied in monolithic organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Domestic extremism, however, is much more decentralized.
Groups like the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and Proud Boys became familiar names in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. These entities are not centralized organizations but networks of affiliated groups sharing a common worldview. Different organizations may target different populations, but they all share a common extremist ideology.
That ideology rests on an exclusionary view of American identity. Known as “white supremacy,” “white power,” or (euphemistically) “white nationalism,” this belief system insists that United States should return to being the Caucasian, Christian nation its adherents imagine it once was. White supremacists have traditionally focused their hatred on African Americans, but they are also anti-immigrant, antisemitic and anti-Asian — indeed, anti-anyone outside their group. In addition to being racist, many extremist groups (most notably the Proud Boys) are stridently misogynistic and anti-LGBTQ. The angry straight white male deprived of his privileged position in American society has become the icon of the white supremacy movement.
In addition to embracing white supremacy, most extremist groups harbor a deep distrust if not an outright antipathy to the federal government. “Patriot militias” that arm themselves to protect the constitution from overreach by Washington elites have embraced this tenet as their core belief, but most extremist groups subscribe to it. Those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 believed they had to force Congress to obey the will of the people.
Conspiracy theories go hand in hand with anti-government sentiment. QAnon maintains that the country is run by a Satan-worshiping cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles. Other conspiracy theories held by extremists include belief that COVID-19 is either a hoax or a bioweapon and the conviction that vaccines contain tracking microchips. The most popular current conspiracy theory is the widely held conviction that the Democrats stole the 2020 election.
Extremist groups pose a serious threat to national security, but most far-right domestic terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by unaffiliated individuals. Only 36 percent of the 257 people charged with crimes committed during the Jan. 6 insurrection had clear ties to extremist groups. Although formal organizations are responsible for plots, such as the one fomented by the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), most successful attacks are perpetrated by individuals with no affiliation to an extremist group.
These unaffiliated individuals subscribe to the extremist ideology without joining any organization. The internet and social media have contributed to decentralization of the white supremacy movement. People can become radicalized online and link up with like-minded extremists without ever attending an in-person meeting. They live in an alternative reality bubble that isolates them from real-world relationships and may encourage them to engage in violence.
Countering lone-wolf terrorism is much harder than combatting extremist groups. Formal organizations can be monitored and infiltrated, making it easier to disrupt plots. The sheer number of individuals attracted to far-right extremism and the number of online forums makes it very difficult for law enforcement to identify who is likely to become violent, let alone determine when and where they will strike.
The difficulty in finding potential perpetrators has led terrorism experts to focus on countering extremist ideology and preventing radicalization. The first step in that process is recognizing the threat for what it is. Violence against Asian Americans is not a distinct form of prejudice linked to COVID-19 that will disappear when the pandemic subsides. It is undeniably the latest manifestation of white supremacy, which demonizes and attacks everyone outside of its own narrowly defined racial community.
Tom Mockaitis is professor of History and DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”