On Contact: Deep American roots of the Atlanta shootings
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses with journalist and writer May Jeong the deep American roots of the Atlanta shootings.
May Jeong’s op-ed, ‘The Deep American Roots of the Atlanta Shootings - The Victims Lived at the Nexus of Race, Gender and Class’, was published in the New York Times on March 19, 2021.
Jeong is a writer at Vanity Fair and an Alicia Patterson fellow. She is working on a book about sex work.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discussed the deep American roots of the Atlanta shootings with the journalist, May Jeong.
MJ: The live reality that we exist, you know, we're going through now is not divorced from what's come before, which is not divorced from the American project which has largely been about imperialism in various parts of Asia. And, I mean, the two cases that I mentioned in the article of, you know, prior Korean sex workers who were brutally murdered by specifically, you know, white men who happened to be soldiers. Again those are only the two instances that, you know, we managed to fit into the coffee. There are just untold numbers of this instance happening. And I think that's why it's so important to think about intersectionality of these issues that, you know, orientalism isn't divorced from military campaign, which isn't divorced from capitalism. And I think it's important to think about, again, like these issues in concert with each other.
CH: The nihilism in American life has spawned an array of self-destructive and violent pathologies, but perhaps the worst is the nation's epidemic of mass shootings. With each new mass killing, including the latest shooting in Colorado, along with the gunning down of eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent and seven of whom were women in Atlanta, it prompts the same anguished questions. Can the killings be stopped with stricter gun control regulations? Can the murder of these women in massage parlors, two of which the killer apparently frequented be blamed as the deputy sheriff did on the suspects confessed sex addition. How are the Atlanta killings tied to the objectification and stereotypes of Asian and Asian-American women? Are these killings fueled by the teachings of the Christian right, which externalizes evil and blames the prevalence of drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, and massage brothels on Satan? Can we separate the murders in Atlanta from the demonization of Chinese people in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? Are these lethal attacks tied to the nearly 4,000 hate related incidents targeting Asian-Americans this year and last, nearly 70% of whom were women? Joining me to discuss these issues is May Jeong, a writer at Vanity Fair and an Alicia Patterson fellow who's writing a book about women in the sex industry. So, May, you right in this very fine op-ed piece in the New York Times that the way Asian and Asian-Americans have been defined throughout American history going back, you know, well over a century and a half contributed to the marginalization and even demonization of Asian and Asian-American in particular women. Explain how we got here, what--that long kind of process.
MJ: Thank you for having me, Chris. As you mentioned, the terrible events of last week is--things like that don't happen in a--in a vacuum. That is a very sort of, you know, to be expected result of decades, and if not centuries, of policy and prejudice and stigma. As I--as write in the op-ed that ran last Friday, the legislative roots of such anti-Asian sentiments go back to, you know, the 1800s. It's, you know, anti-Asian violence is really as old as, you know, Asian presence in America. We see this in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the very first federal legislation that sought out to exclude a particular group of an ethnic group. It was really only repealed, repealed, pardon me, during World War II when it became very politically inconvenient for America to have this incredibly, you know, anti-Chinese legislation whilst they're trying to ally with China to fight the Imperial Army in Japan. And but what is little known is that there is a legislation called the Page Act that actually precedes the better-known Chinese Exclusion Act by about seven years. And that act was specifically targeting Chinese women. And the alleged reason was that, you know, there were some--there were fears of Chinese women coming into America that they might be coming in as prostitutes. And so then there were various sort of machinery of American consulates, you know, in Hong Kong specifically that would sort of, you know, query Chinese women asking them various questions. The more--the most sort of a moralistic being, are you a virtuous woman? And that is how the story of anti-Asian violence in America really begins.
CH: You also write in a piece that there were massacres, I mean, that as with African-Americans, there were moments when white mobs just turned on Asians and killed them in fairly large numbers.
MJ: Yes, I mean, there's only two that we managed to squeeze into the copy. We ran out of space, but the list is terribly long. There were incidents all over America. There's one in Tacoma that, you know, drove out--that killed many Chinese miners, drove out, you know, many more. There was another instance where there were some, you know, very regrettably mirroring the African-American experience in America as well. There was an instance where a Filipino man the name, you know, is lost to history, this gentleman was accused of seducing a white woman and then this sort of incited a race riot that, overnight, drove the entire, you know, Filipino population from the small town that happened to South Asians and East Asians as well. And that's, you know, that's--that--that's only the recorded history and that happened in early 1900s. And then, of course, in most recent--more recent time, there was the instance of, you know, the Sikh community coming under siege because of mistaken belief that they were Muslims which, I think, is has a particularly tragic ring to it. There where--there was also the, you know, the more famous case of Vincent Chin who was of Chinese descent and he was mistaken to be Japanese and was, you know, brutally murdered. And, you know, why was it a problem that Vincent Chin was Japanese? Because America has a history of--in turning Japanese people during the war. And so when you--when you seen individual actions, it's quite easy to say, oh, this is an aberrant behavior, but I think when you--when you see a series of it, if you step back and take a look at history, you realize that nothing is happening in a vacuum.
CH: I think it's also important, although it's not in the piece, that Chinese labor was expendable like for instance Chinese workers built the railways and died in horrific numbers in the same way that, during reconstruction and convict leasing, African American labor was expendable dying in the turpentine camps or in slavery by another name on plantations, but that was also an important element of discrimination, that these were people whose lives really didn't count.
MJ: Hugely, thank you so much for bringing that up. The--it's known that, you know, how many ever stretches of the railroad, which really was the beginning of America becoming--cohering into a country and, you know, that was the base of, you know, economic growth in America, that was built on, you know, Chinese blood. And they were often obviously poorly treated, but also terribly paid. They weren't allowed to bring their families. And so then as a result, they weren't really allowed to able to settle. And concurrently, I mean, this is what's sort of fascinating about capitalism, that it does override even, you know, racial hatred. And so this, you know, the Chinese miners were actually allowed to come at a time when, you know, like, you know, legally they, you know, it would have been difficult to but, you know, loopholes remain so that, you know, workers could come and actually participate in the building of the railways. The other Chinese men who were allowed to work were--weren't really allowed to participate in any other economic activity, but for so called feminized labor. And this is why, you know, in the early days, it was really restaurants and Laundromats. And so when you--when you walk down, you know, in your neighborhood in New York, if you live in New York and you wonder, you know, why there's so many Chinese restaurants or wondering, you know, why are all the Laundromats run by Chinese or, you know, Korean families? It's not that, you know, Chinese people have some like innate love of cooking or washing clothes, it's that those are the only economic opportunities that were available to them.
CH: You talk about the military, which I think is a very important point, many servicemen overseas certainly with the--you saw it in Korea with the occupation of Japan, brothels were set up by the Army, the Philippines, of course, even currently I've been with Marine Corps units that are anticipating their trip to Thailand and the military is quite open about what that three or four-day leave is about. They're handing out condoms like candy, and I think that's a very important point. Vietnam was another instance where you have, you know, hundreds of thousands of American men whose first experience with Asian women is through prostitution.
MJ: Yes, absolutely, you know. Something that's interesting that I always think about is Thailand, as you mentioned, has become this sort of tourist destination for sex tourism, I don't know if that's a phrase. And, you know, one wonders why that might be and, you know, that tradition has its roots in the Vietnam War and, you know, there were GIs there and then the nearest place they could go for R&R would be Thailand. And so then that is the thing that begets this, like, vibrant sex trade or however you want to phrase it. And, yes, it was--it was quite surprising for me to do the historical research that I did to learn about, you know, I'm, you know, of Korean descent and it's very surprising for me to learn that, you know, among the first--apart from, you know, Koreans who came to America, you know, by way of Hawaii when we're talking about, you know, the continent. The first Koreans to come to the country came as GI brides and some of them--I mean, it's always difficult to tell but, you know, so then one thinks about, you know, what is the demographic of people who would have had contact with American soldiers in America? And if you're--if you're a single--if you're a woman in Korea, then chances are quite high, that they would have been, you know, in the--sort of the bars and what, you know, clubs that would have sprung up around all these various military bases. And there's a phrase called Yang-gong-ju in Korea which basically means, you know, it's the equivalent of seeing Yankee whore or Yankee princess and it's this sort of complicated morally suspect bargain that even the Korean government struck where they understood that, you know, in order for American presence to continue because they were a pro-American regime that was, you know, being funded by America, they would need to facilitate such encounters but then the minute that these Korean women, you know--you know, participated in supporting your pleasuring American soldiers, they then became sort of denounced by their own communities and there really sort of started to exist in this, like, part of state where, you know, they weren't accepted as Koreans and obviously, you know, Americans weren't, you know, they were calling them, like, Oriental--Orientals. And they were the--really the first ones to come, and as I mentioned the piece, you know, once they come with their soldier husbands where they settle around military bases. And in fact something that we now know is that one of the women killed during the Atlanta spa shootings, she herself had met her husband in South Korea who was a military man and had immigrated to America in the '70s, I believe, and they had settled at Fort Benning which is in Georgia. It's about a 90-minute drive from where she ended up being killed 50 so years later.
CH: Great. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the Deep American roots of the Atlanta shooting with the journalist, May Jeong. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the mass murder and nihilism in American life, and how it affects Asian and Asian-Americans with the journalist and writer, Mae Jeong. So before the break, we were talking about the way the military culture oversees fed the stereotype of Asian women. You make a point in the piece that when they come back, the--and especially around military basis, they replicate in many ways that kind of bar scene, brothel scene, that is typical in places like Okinawa and other long-term--the Philippines, et cetera, and--but you also point out that for these women who come to the United States, you raise the issue of class. They don't speak the language very well, many of them may not have much of an education and so the issue of class becomes important in terms of funneling them into just a handful of occupations and, yeah, maybe you can speak a little bit about that?
MJ: Sure, happily. Class is a subject that I believe often gets overlooked when we discuss race and gender and it is, I think, a crucial lens through which we can, you know, try to understand what happened in Atlanta. Imagine yourself a--so, yeah, so first of all, you're a woman, you're a woman of color, you come to a new country, you don't have the privilege of assimilation, you lack language skills that can, you know, allow you to, you know, get the most sort of, you know, base of jobs, you're looking at a, I don't know, a carwash or a fast food, you know, restaurant chain. And what you're really left with is massage parlor work, and maybe a handful of others. And I think--I think it's also really important to think about the Atlanta shootings, the spa shootings as--I mean, workplace violence, they were--they died because they were at work, they were at their place of work where they died while working. And, yeah, I think that is something that is important to highlight. It's--as I mentioned, again, in the article…
MJ: Sorry. Go ahead.
CH: No, go ahead.
MJ: Oh, I was just going to mention the fact that, yeah, the--these women existed at the nexus of, you know, the terrible access of race gender and class. They lacked privilege in--on all free fronts, which sort of made them, yeah, the victims that they ended up becoming.
CH: You're right. You're right. Asian women became an object of hatred and lust, a thing to loathe, then desire. The distance between yellow peril and yellow fever measured in flashes. Explain what you mean by that.
MJ: I mean, I think this is an experience that I dare say mostly women have experienced. You're walking down the street and then perhaps you're catcalled, and then you issue such advances and immediately the next thing you hear is, you know, a racial slur or, you know, some sort of violence, and this is anthropologically interesting what's going through the person's mind, but also, you know, deeply dehumanizing obviously, and I think we're now sort of getting to experience--I remember when it was quite early people would say, you know--you know, White women would say no one can beat an Asian woman, you know, how lucky it is to be you, but really, it's the--it's the same forces that exoticize us that then dehumanize us, and this obviously came to turbulence again in Atlanta, the shooter himself, as you mentioned, you know, sort of saw this size--saw these women as temptations that ought to be eliminated and the language that he deploys to talk about these women are as if he's talking about some roadblock that he needs to, you know, punt off to the side and it is as if he's treating them as if they were objects, as in--he's objectifying them which includes in its very definition the capacity to, you know, exert violence onto it because you're not seeing it--seeing it as a human being, but an it.
CH: I know you're working on a book on people who--women who work in the sex industry and you had in your article kind of an amazing figure, it was from the Immigration Naturalization Service created the Korean Organized Crime Task Force, and it said that 90% of massage parlor workers in the United States had come to the country as GI brides, 90%. And I--and I think that that focus on kind of military culture, it can't be divorced from this industry and from what's happened to these women. And of course the propensity towards violence, we see it periodically, for instance, around Okinawa, women are being killed on a regular basis by US Marines or US troops that are stationed in Okinawa. Can you talk a little bit about that violence? Because that also is not new. We've seen some 4,000, I think, attacks or acts of hate crimes carried out against Asians which, of course, have been fed most recently by the demonization of China and not including president Trump's decision to call this the China virus, or the Kung Fu Virus. So, talk a little bit about that issue.
MJ: Yes. I mean, I think that's why we need to realize that the live reality that we exist, you know, we're going through now is not divorced from what's come before, which is not divorced from the American project which has largely been about imperialism in various parts of Asia. And, I mean, the two cases that I mentioned in the article of, you know, prior Korean sex workers who were brutally murdered by specifically, you know, White men who happened to be soldiers. Again those are only the two instances that, you know, we managed to fit into the coffee. There are just untold numbers of this instance happening. And I think that's why it's so important to think about intersectionality of these issues that, you know, orientalism isn't divorced from military campaign, which isn't divorced from capitalism. And I think it's important to think about, again, like these issues in concert with each other. And I should also mention that the 90% number that comes from research conducted by professor Yuri Doolan of Brandeis University and, I too, remember being quite stunned by this number but again, once you realize that you--I mean, it--it's sort of as one despairs thinking that wow, you know, these larger forces, that's the thing that is shaping my life right now and that is the thing that's shaping--that's shaped the women in Atlanta who died but hopefully it gives us some perspective realizing that there is nothing inherent in our nature to consider, you know, Asian women to be exotic or whatever, these are all socially constricted ideas. And if it is indeed that, you know, humans made them, then maybe there's hope that we can undo that damage.
CH: You had a deputy sheriff say that Robert Long who carried out these murders in Atlanta was, I think if I quote him right, he was saying he had a bad day or something, but he also said that it's because he was struggling with a sex addiction, how do you respond to a statement like that?
MJ: First of all, sex addiction is not in the DSM, it's not a medically recognized diagnosis and my understanding is that--and that's something that I wasn't able to, you know, write more into the copy, but obviously, religion played a big role and I think it's important to also note that, you know, fundamentalism--and this is something that came out during checking actually, the word fundamentalism doesn't apply specifically to, you know, the Islamic faith, it applies to all faiths and it appears as if Long always exposed, you know, prolonged exposure to a particular brand of Christian fundamentalism and the language of sex addiction, it--my understanding within that particular group, is that it's just normal sexuality that, you know, is immediately considered to be deviant and again, I think, you know, using sex addiction as a--as like the perpetrator-motive or the excuse, or whatever, is centering the alleged perpetrator and, you know, not thinking about the victim. He saw, again, them as temptations that needed to be eliminated.
CH: Well, I wrote a book on the Christian right, they see those forces as satanic. They're quite upfront about it, and they see secular humanism, which is their version of "Satan" in the outside world as setting up situations like this to lure people into sin. It's this externalization of evil, and yet much of the violence, I mean, certainly, the violence which you cited the couple--the military violence that you cited, the military violence that's ongoing anywhere there's a US military base can't be blamed on sex addiction, it has to be blamed on something else, and I--and I guess that's the question for me, what is it? Is it a self-loathing, is it a kind of loathing towards people who have been in particular women most attacks are against women have been objectified, just in the last minute, what do you think it is that drives that violence? Because it's clearly not sex addiction.
MJ: I maintain that it's famously hard to sift through the reasons why someone does something. I myself often don't know why I do something and--but I think when something like this happens, it's an occasion for us to engage in some serious self-inquiry, you know. Long, again, wasn't born in a vacuum, he was born into, you know, born in this century, you know, America and so then want us to wonder what is it about here and now that enabled him to carry on such terrible acts. And as I read in the piece, I mean, part of it is absolutely, I believe [INDISTINCT] sentiments fueled by both history and policy as we discussed. Part of it is, you know, the ready availability of [INDISTINCT] that is just, I mean, terrifying, but also, like, why is it that we live in a world that only allows for women and women of color who are, you know, I don't know, maybe undocumented or, you know, aren't properly assimilated? Why is it that the only employment opportunity for them is working in massage parlors, maybe those are occasions? Those are questions that we should be asking ourselves. I don't know if it's--if it's so--it's a good use of our time trying to, you know, spend so much time within Long's mind trying to articulate why did he do such a thing because maybe it doesn't matter why he did it. I think in the end, these women are dead and I don't--I don't know if their families would care so much. And I mean, obviously I'm in touch with a few of them, and I don't know if they would care so much about the why so much as, you know, the fact that it happened.
CH: Great. Thank you. That was journalist and author Mae Jeong who's working on a book about women in the sex industry. Thank you.
MJ: Thank you for having me.