One year after Atlanta spa shootings, 'prevention is the key' to fighting anti-Asian hate crimes

When a man killed eight people last year at three spas in the Atlanta area, many in the community were quick to condemn the killings as clear acts of racism: Six women of Asian descent who worked in massage parlors were killed.

The mass shooting came amid a historic increase in violence against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, the federal government has passed legislation to combat hate crimes, and a Georgia prosecutor announced she is seeking the death penalty for the 22-year-old Atlanta gunman for four of the killings, a sentence made possible by the state's new hate crimes statute. The suspect pleaded guilty to the four other murders and was sentenced to life in prison.

Experts on hate crimes told USA TODAY the charges are important because they acknowledge the traumatic impact the shootings had on the victims, their friends and families and the Asian American community.

Hate crimes are rarely federally prosecuted. Although there have been increased efforts to track such crimes, lawmakers need to do more to prevent the violence and make the community feel safe, according to hate crime experts and Asian American advocates.

"Prevention is the key," said Michael Lieberman, senior policy counsel for hate and extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "This is a national problem that we cannot arrest or enforce our way out of. We need to make a commitment to anti-hate education."

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People rally against anti-Asian hate in Washington's Chinatown on March 27, 2021, after women were killed in a shooting rampage at massage parlors in the Atlanta area.
People rally against anti-Asian hate in Washington's Chinatown on March 27, 2021, after women were killed in a shooting rampage at massage parlors in the Atlanta area.

Why calling the Atlanta spa shootings a hate crime matters

Initially after the Atlanta shootings on March 16, 2021, law enforcement pushed back against claims that the attack was motivated by bias. Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said the suspect told police that his actions were not racially motivated and that he had a sexual addiction, comments that sparked outrage.

"It was particularly harmful not to recognize how this was an incident that was racialized and sexualized," said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit that formed amid the pandemic to track violence and negative rhetoric aimed at Asian Americans. "We are going to take time as part of our community to remember the loss of life and to also push for the kinds of responses that will prevent these incidents from happening in the first place."

In 2020, hate crime reports in the USA spiked to their highest level in 12 years, and attacks against Asian Americans climbed from 161 in 2019 to 279 a year later, according to the most recent FBI data. Experts said the rapid rise in hate crimes was fueled by racist rhetoric about the COVID-19 pandemic, including from politicians such as President Donald Trump who blamed China for the spread of the coronavirus.

The federal data is likely an undercount because there are systemic barriers that prevent victims from reporting hate crimes and many of the country's 18,000 police departments either don't submit hate crime data or report zero incidents, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Stop AAPI Hate reported more than 6,273 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2021, according to data released Thursday, an increase from 4,632 the year before. The incidents range from verbal harassment and physical assault to civil rights violations and online harassment.

It's hard to tell whether the incidents occur more often or if people report more because of the increased awareness and media attention, Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, told USA TODAY.

Choi said the group has "been able to establish that this is systemic and pervasive."

"We've also seen some troubling patterns that women are reporting nearly twice the rate as men are reporting, that it's largely verbal harassment, noncriminal, but they need to be taken seriously," she said.

Attacks against women of Asian descent – including the subway killing of Michelle Go and the fatal stabbing of Christina Yuna Lee in New York City – have again drawn attention to the violence Asian American women face.

"We're not always able to demonstrate whether it's racially motivated or not," Choi said. "But we do know that it has exacerbated fear for our own safety."

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Hate crimes are difficult to prosecute because attorneys must prove the defendant's motive, said Lu-in Wang, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Justice Department attorneys declined to prosecute 82% of nearly 2,000 hate crime suspects from 2005 to 2019 most often because of insufficient evidence, according to an agency analysis released last year.

To prove a crime was motivated by bias, prosecutors may present evidence that a defendant expressed racist views, as federal prosecutors successfully did in the hate crimes trial of the three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia.

Wang said proving a crime was motivated by bias can be even harder when the victims are of Asian descent because of stereotypes and a belief that they don't face the same kind of racial violence as other minority groups.

"The rise in anti-Asian violence has come as more or less of a surprise to a lot of people," she said.

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How to prevent hate crimes?

In May, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which expedites the Justice Department’s review of hate crimes and provides grants to states to improve hate crime reporting as a way to combat violence against Asian Americans.

Though state and federal laws impose additional penalties when a crime is motivated by bias, there's no evidence stiffer punishment deters people from committing crimes, said Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a California State University professor who studies hate crimes.

“Somebody who's about to commit a crime doesn't stop and think, ‘Well, you know, if it was only one year, I'd go ahead and do it, but I'm going to get two years in prison, and that's too much,’” Gerstenfeld said.

Gerstenfeld said there's very little research on what strategies can effectively prevent prejudiced crimes because the motivating factors are so complex and it's difficult to predict who might commit these kind of crimes.

Most offenders are young, white men who have little criminal history, don't know their victims and are not part of an organized hate group, Gerstenfeld said.

Gerstenfeld said education and improved messaging around tolerance is the best way to prevent violence.

"Unless we do something about the deeper causes, long term we're not going to have any solutions," she said.

University of Akron psychology professor Toni Bisconti, who researches experiences of discrimination and diversity-related education, said the burden of educating others shouldn't fall to minority communities.

"In order to engage in prevention, we have to recognize our own personal culpability," said Bisconti, who is white. "Really, this is where you need allies."

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She said increasing access to mental health resources in schools could help identify students who have problems with aggression before hate escalates into violence.

"One of the biggest problems with grade school and junior high and even high school education is we don't teach basic anger management or conflict management," she said.

Experts pointed to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Learning for Justice project as a potential resource for educators. SPLC President Margaret Huang testified before Congress last month about the nonprofit legal advocacy organization's guide for equipping parents with tools to identify warning signs that their children have been exposed to extremist propaganda.

"The key is going to be building resilience against online radicalization against bullying and harassment that people learn in schools," said Lieberman, with the SPLC.

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As state lawmakers and school boards attempt to restrict what lessons about race and history can be taught, Choi said, ethnic studies programs have "the greatest promise for addressing the root causes of social conditioning." New Jersey and Illinois became the first states to require Asian American studies in public schools.

Choi said increased investment in community-based solutions is critical because of the traumatic effect incidents have had on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

"We feel unsafe living our daily lives," she said, stressing the need for "actions, not just words, to ensure the health and safety of our communities."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact Breaking News Reporter N'dea Yancey-Bragg at or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Atlanta spa shootings: 'Prevention is the key' to stop anti-Asian hate