Posted on July 31, 2021

Why Atlanta Spa Shooter’s Asian ‘Acquaintances’ Can’t Tell Us Much About His Racial Biases

Kimmy Yam, NBC News, July 28, 2021

Although a Georgia prosecutor declared this week that no racial bias was involved in the Atlanta-area spa shootings in March, experts say interviews with the suspect’s Asian “acquaintances” prove little about Robert Aaron Long’s outlook on Asian Americans.

Long, who pleaded guilty to four murders that took place in Cherokee County and received four life sentences in a plea deal, told authorities he was motivated by his sex addiction. Yet the majority of his eight victims were Asian women.

Though his claim prompted outcry and protests from Asian Americans, prosecutor Shannon Wallace echoed Long’s assertion, saying investigators had interviewed acquaintances and others of Asian descent who knew the suspect, and none had seen him exhibit anti-Asian bias.

“We’ve considered the evidence collected by the FBI and our sheriff’s office, which failed to show any type of history this defendant had with any form of racism towards any other ethnicity,” Wallace said Tuesday before Cherokee County Superior Court Judge Ellen McElyea.

But experts said asking acquaintances about their observations reduces Long’s outlook on the Asian community to those interactions, ignoring the colliding dynamics that led him to the spas in the first place, as well as his mindset on the day of the attacks.

“Understanding the views of the shooter’s Asian American acquaintances is less important in making sense of this crime,” said Janelle Wong, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, “than understanding the ways in which the victims’ racial backgrounds, gender and vulnerable class positions contributed to their occupations, their need to be working in a spa during the pandemic and, ultimately, their being targets.”

Stanley Mark, a senior staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights organization, said that in cases like this, prosecutors and police must primarily weigh the “moment of the incident itself.” In investigating crimes for racial bias, particularly from a political standpoint, it’s routine to look into the suspect’s background and gather information from his personal emails, for example. However, that’s not sufficient to make a determination about his behavior at the time of the shooting.

“If they’re talking to his friends, I think that’s legitimate. But on the other hand, it’s not conclusive,” Mark said. “It’s not his state of mind at the moment. He shot these people. That’s, that’s what you’re looking at, not past acts or slurs.”

Mark said Long’s attorneys likely insisted he didn’t have racial bias in an attempt to mitigate his intent. If investigators had heard from acquaintances that Long had acted in a racially offensive way, then such information could be used as circumstantial evidence or reflect on the suspect’s character, but that is not enough, Mark said.

From a commonsense standpoint, it’s not particularly likely that the shooter would behave with blatant anti-Asian bias in front of his friends, Mark said.


Long’s killing of six Asian women at three spas, including one called Young’s Asian Massage, is where focus should be placed, Mark said. The suspect had admitted to investigators that he frequented Young’s in the past. {snip}


The historical sexualization of Asian women in the U.S., which is a “clear part of this story,” is a result of the confluence of racist and sexist stereotypes and structures in the U.S., Wong said. {snip}

Long had told authorities that his acts were his form of vigilante justice, taking it upon himself to “eliminate temptation.” But experts have noted that such language is emblematic of archaic beliefs that Asian women are exotic, submissive and sexually deviant. {snip}


“It doesn’t matter what the DA says. Politically, they can whitewash and say it’s not racially motivated,” Mark said. “We as Asian Americans — we know what it was.”