Anti-Asian Hate in America

A mass shooting in Atlanta draws attention to a problem of which I was only tangentially aware.

Bigotry is a complex phenomenon in a country as large and diverse as the United States. Growing up white and Christian-adjacent mostly in the Deep South half a century ago, I was well acquainted with anti-Black racism. A year and a half in El Paso in my early teens acquainted me with anti-Mexican prejudice, which seemed from my vantage point much milder, given the mixing of the cultures and much-more-common cross-racial dating and intermarriage. But, until the rise of Pepe memes and other indicators during the 2016 election cycle, I had presumed anti-Semitism a relic of the distant past, relegated to the far fringes of neo-Nazis. In my limited experience, Jews were just “white people” and Judeo-Christian a compound indicating a continuum, not a divide.

Recent news would have me believe that there is a widespread anti-Asian sentiment in the country. This may well be obvious to Asian-Americans and to whites who live in California or other places with large Asian enclaves but it’s alien to me. Having lived so much of my life around military communities, where intermarriage between white service members and Asian women is common, I’ve never had a sense that Asians were an Other, much less viewed as lesser. Yes, there were occasional references to differing eye shape and the like that we now eschew, along with the outdated descriptor “Oriental,” but attributed this to what Graeme Wood describes as “an expression less of hatred than of social difference.”

The LA Riots brought to my awareness tensions between Black and Korean residents, but I attributed it more to turf fights over resources than bigotry. And, while there is doubtless stereotyping of Asian-Americans in media, it’s almost overwhelmingly positive—they’re smart, hard-working, and are masters of either a musical instrument or martial art. That’s a form of prejudice, of course, but of a much different piece than anti-Black racism.

As to the awful massacre of eight women in Atlanta massage parlors, six of whom were of Asian descent, my early impression comports with Melissa Jeltsen‘s.

There’s a tension that exists in the immediate wake of every mass tragedy. The public yearns for answers, wanting to make sense of the unimaginable. At the same time, little, if any, accurate information is readily available.

It’s a predictable vacuum in which chaos reigns, and sticky narratives can take hold. Such was the case earlier this week, after a 21-year-old man went on a deadly shooting rampage at three Atlanta-area massage parlors, where it appears men could buy sex. Robert Aaron Long is now accused of killing eight people — six of whom were Asian women. He was a customer at at least two of the spas, police said.

Amid a frightening uptick in violence against Asian Americans, the attack was quickly labeled by many as primarily motivated by race. But Long told investigators that he attacked the massage parlors because he was struggling with a “sex addiction” and wanted to eliminate the “temptation” of buying sex. While an alleged mass murderer is an unreliable narrator, others have come forward with stories that corroborated his account — and further reporting has painted a picture of a suspect consumed with religion-fueled shame over his urges. Suddenly, Long’s attack began to more closely resemble a classic type of American mass shooting: one largely driven by loathing of women.

Yet asking who Long hated the most only goes so far. As much as we can ever know the truth about any person’s motivation for violence, the Atlanta shooting likely stemmed from a toxic stew of racism, misogyny, prejudice against sex workers, religious beliefs, and mental illness. (Despite cries to the contrary, mental health is a factor in a significant percentage of mass shootings.) The rush to identify one true motive prevents us from understanding the complexities of a crime like this — and ultimately does a disservice to the victims themselves.

Much of the commentary attributes the killings to hatred of Asians, fetishization of Asian women, general misogyny, and even former President Donald Trump’s blaming the COVID pandemic on “Chy-na.” And it’s possible that all of those things will prove to be true. But most of these cases are more complicated than the initial diagnosis would suggest:

Mass shootings are often misunderstood, and myths about the motivations of the perpetrators, established in the hours and days after the initial event, can linger for years. It’s still conventional wisdom that the Columbine shooters planned their attack as revenge against schoolyard bullies, even though the truth was far more complicated. Many still believe that the Pulse nightclub shooting was a planned attack on the LGBTQ community, despite evidence to the contrary. At the trial of Noor Salman, the shooter’s widow, which I attended, it came out that he appeared to have picked Pulse at random after Googling nightclubs the night of the attack.

The rush to attribute the violence to a single unifying motive obscures the truth. It also creates a splintering of identities, where a victim is defined by their race, their gender, their class, or their job — instead of as a whole being. Investigators should look at all the factors in unison, not stripped apart. As Lisalyn R. Jacobs, an expert on race and gender, wrote to me on Twitter, “We can only fully move forward by acknowledging the breadth of the victims’ identities, not selected aspects.”

I must admit, I had long stopped paying attention to the Pulse case and had in fact missed the update that the LGBTQ angle was coincidental rather than central.

Of course, whether the Atlanta massacre turned out to be motivated by race doesn’t tell us much about the larger issue. It may well be that anti-Asian sentiment is much more prevalent here than I had realized.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Crime, Race and Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    My youngest (21) daughter is Chinese and works in a grocery store in very progressive Marin County. She’s the last person to be hyper-aware of race issues, she has zero interest in politics. But she’s been on the receiving end of slurs a couple times and seemingly less-than-innocent questions about where she was born.

    I don’t think it’s anything like as prevalent or as virulent as anti-Black racism, but if you’re getting it in Mill Valley, California, it’s certainly a thing.

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  2. DrDaveT says:

    Of course, whether the Atlanta massacre turned out to be motivated by race doesn’t tell us much about the larger issue. It may well be that anti-Asian sentiment is much more prevalent here than I had realized.

    Thanks for adding that. Even if it turns out that race was only coincidentally involved in the Atlanta shootings*, the event has certainly provoked some eye-opening accounts of everyday bigotry around the country.

    I’m no expert in this field, but it seems to me that many Americans draw a sharp line between immigrant populations that assimilate, and those who don’t. I have colleagues and friends and family members who have no detectable antisemitism, but loathe the Hassidim. Similarly, they are just fine with Asians who “act American”, even marrying into white families, but have a deep resentment of communities in the US where (say) the business signs and restaurant menus are mostly in Korean or Chinese. It’s almost like they take a failure to assimilate as an insult — like they’re saying American culture isn’t good enough for them. (And of course there is a much more complicated and nuanced version of this problem between black and white Americans.)

    *Hypothetically, I could imagine that this guy was most familiar with Asian massage parlors because he’s particularly sexually attracted to Asian women. That would explain why he picked them as victims in two different ways — they were the source of his temptation, and he already knew where they were.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    At the trial of Noor Salman, the shooter’s widow, which I attended, it came out that he appeared to have picked Pulse at random after Googling nightclubs the night of the attack.

    Really??? He left a recording of “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo”? I would really like to see the evidence behind this conclusion picking at random, because it seems to me it is far far faaaaar more likely he googled nightclubs and then picked the gay one because it was gay.

    Also, maybe my memory is faulty but I distinctly remember reading a report that he had previously visited the Pulse night club more than once.

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  4. CSK says:

    The women who died may have been more targets of opportunity (and misogyny) than explicitly anti-Asian violence. (A white husband and wife were shot, and a Hispanic man; only the Hispanic man survived.) A huge number of massage parlors are staffed by Asian women who are forced into indentured servitude. See this piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/02/us/massage-parlors-human-trafficking.html

    The killer strikes me more as an incel/religious fanatic who was lashing out at women whom he saw as occasions of temptation and sin. Vile creature.

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  5. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Is this in the wake of what Trump likes to call the China virus?

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    Dividing people into groups and bullying or scapegoating one or more of those groups is innate in our animal natures. The private university in upstate NY I arrived at in 1978 was (and is) also the National Technical Institute of the Deaf and I lived in a dorm that was roughly half hearing and half deaf. Within weeks the hearing students, the vast majority of which had little experience with deaf people, had picked up a derisive term for the deaf students, which I won’t repeat here. Suffice it to say, it was used in much the same way the n-word was used, with the same contemptuous tone. It was obvious even to my 18 year old non-woke mind that this was a means of dehumanizing them, to make them an out-group so as to cement your place in an imagined in-group. It was profoundly depressing to watch it unfold.

    And it isn’t a “white” thing, it’s a people thing. I have spent significant time with many different people from all over the world. The US, while striking me as permeated with racism, also strikes me, paradoxically, as being less racist than many societies. It is so in our faces here that we think we are the worst, but the reality is that we are one of a few dozen nations that even treats this as an issue and strives, however haltingly, to build a society with more justice and fairness.

    The word for this effort is “Civilization”, and it is used to advance beyond our animal nature in other ways. It tamps down the urge to violently take what we want when we are stronger. To abandon the weak and the sick so as to get more for ourselves. I believe it is possible to hold such things in abeyance but it requires a strong commitment from government and other civil leaders. This is what makes Jim Crow governance so dangerous. It encourages animal behavior. Violence. Scapegoating. Abandoning or even killing the socially weak. When the citizenry have been encouraged to become less civilized they are easier for those in power to control. The whole world view of the masses becomes caught up in making sure that they do not fall down the social hierarchy and that no one beneath advances past them. When they grow dissatisfied with those who have power over them, they are easily whipped into a violent mob and set upon some hapless, “low-value” target, thereby satiating their frustration for a time.

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  7. gVOR08 says:

    Mass shooters are pretty much definitionally crazy. The search for straightforward motives is probably a waste of time. This guy doesn’t seem to have seen the Asian women as fully human, but maybe he didn’t see anyone as fully human. The real question should be what are the actionable things we can do to reduce these incidents. The obvious leverage point would seem to be his ability to buy a gun whenever he felt like it.

    Of course it would be helpful if our President (sic) hadn’t constantly talked about the “Chy Na virus”. I read most of the women were Korean, but then one of the first “Muslims” shot to death by a bigot was a Sikh.

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  8. Slugger says:

    @MarkedMan: I certainly agree with you. Humanity has a frightening record of hatred and violence toward the “other.” We are capable of amplifying minute differences in heritage into pretexts for murder. Serb-Croat, Hutu-Tutsi, Sunni-Shia, and many other examples of differences that require study through a microscope to see are deep enough to elicit bloodshed. If you wear a Celtic soccer team jersey in a Ranger bar in Glasgow, you will be challenged. Given this long record of unjustifiable violence, it is important for all of us to be alert. There are no vampires nor werewolves, but monsters of hate do live among us and within us.
    The exact motivation of this particular guy are not clearly discernible because his actions are irrational and crazy. His brain is a cesspool that leads to murder and not a cool forum of reason where action A comes from motive B. Let’s focus on reducing the sharpness of the divisions in our hearts.

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @CSK:
    Yep. No question, cause and effect.

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  10. Not the IT Dept. says:

    He was uncomfortable with his physical urges so women had to die because it was their fault or something. Nothing could possibly be a man’s fault. His church told him that sexual impulses were evil and therefore to be resisted and he failed to do that. So the women had to die. Because nothing is ever a man’s fault, and therefore turning the gun on himself was not an option. Because of his feelings or pride or something. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    One of the confounding aspects of this is that the hate groups always aim to make themselves appear bigger than they actually are. I don’t know how to apply that in a general situation. I’m not denying they exist. I just want those of use that oppose them to stay in the game, moving forward, while also keeping safe.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Hypothetically, I could imagine that this guy was most familiar with Asian massage parlors because he’s particularly sexually attracted to Asian women. That would explain why he picked them as victims in two different ways — they were the source of his temptation, and he already knew where they were.

    The particular attraction to asian women often comes from some very creepy views about them being subservient to men. And I don’t know what it says that most of the victims were in their 60s.

    I suspect that we will keep finding out things about this guy and that each one will turn our stomach a bit more than the last. An onion of depravity.

    My main reason for thinking he is a bottomless pit of disgustingness is the beard.

    (Compare to Dylann Roof, who is a pretty shallow pit of disgustingness, where what you see is what you get — dumb racist white kid)

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  13. Gustopher says:

    And, while there is doubtless stereotyping of Asian-Americans in media, it’s almost overwhelmingly positive—they’re smart, hard-working, and are masters of either a musical instrument or martial art.

    I realize that Breakfast At Tiffany’s is over 50 years old, but I’m not sure anything has really changed that much.

    I do think a lot of it is anti-immigrant rather than specifically race, though. There’s an overlap, of course, but the well-assimilated “white acting” Asian who hangs out with his white friends gets a pass (Particularly if they have an easy to pronounce, but amusing name like Yo Yo Ma) in a way that the more recent immigrants do not.

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  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    In my limited experience, Jews were just “white people” and Judeo-Christian a compound indicating a continuum, not a divide.

    The whole “Judeo-Christian” thing is actually a form of erasure. If you look into the roots of the term, it’s derived from the idea that Judaism is some sort of defective sect of Christianity that got left behind and needs to be fixed by bringing it back into the fold.

    It’s modern use is primarily a way of advocating for Christian theocracy while pretending that you’re not trying to give Christianity special legal status.

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  15. CSK says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Back in 2007, Ann Coulter told Donny Deustch (who’s Jewish) that Jews need to be “perfected” into Christians.

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  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    There’s also the whole “model minority” phenomenon: “why do you minority-group-X have to keep demanding equal treatment instead of just being happy with a second-class place in society like Asians?”

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  17. SKI says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The whole “Judeo-Christian” thing is actually a form of erasure. If you look into the roots of the term, it’s derived from the idea that Judaism is some sort of defective sect of Christianity that got left behind and needs to be fixed by bringing it back into the fold.

    This. It is called supersessionism and it is inherently antisemitic.

    It’s modern use is primarily a way of advocating for Christian theocracy while pretending that you’re not trying to give Christianity special legal status.

    Don’t forget the Islamophobia…

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  18. KM says:

    @CSK:

    The killer strikes me more as an incel/religious fanatic who was lashing out at women whom he saw as occasions of temptation and sin. Vile creature.

    Oh he definitely killed them because they were Evil Wimmins who Tempted him to Sin by existing. He also deliberately killed Asian women because a man that thinks that way will also buy into the stereotype that Asian women are naturally more submissive then white women and therefore it’s their fault for being so sexy. He went out of his way to kill Asian women at multiple locations when he could have lashed out at temptresses in general (aka women in public a la École Polytechnique) or strike at sex workers on corners (you know he knows where some are). He knew who he wanted to target and it was no mistake it was women trapped into serving his sick needs and mindset.

    It was a toxic combo of hate and incel logic. Minority women get screwed by damn near every -ism there is since they always, always end up at the bottom of the pecking order and get blamed for everything multiple times over. A true hate crime on multiple levels.

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  19. CSK says:

    @KM:
    According to the NYTimes, Long had been a customer at two of the spas he shot up, so he returned to the scene of his original sin, so to speak, in order to wipe out the she-devils who led him into it. He went to a place that was already familiar to him.

    Since Long also managed to shoot a white man, a white woman, and a Hispanic man, I’ll reserve judgment on whether this was a specifically anti-Asian crime. Again, as the NYTimes pointed out, most massage parlors tend to have Asian female employees, so they would tend to be victimized in a horrific crime such as this. And yes, I agree that there’s a pernicious stereotype of Asian women as hot because they’re “submissive.”

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  20. senyordave says:

    @CSK: Jews need to be “perfected”
    That’s odd. I’m Jewish, and my mother spent most of my life telling me how perfect I am (and my two brothers each heard the same). Must be some type of Jewish mother thing.

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  21. CSK says:

    @senyordave:
    Reminds me of an old joke:
    Q. How do we know Christ was Jewish?
    A. He went into his father’s business.
    He lived at home till he was 33.
    His mother thought he was God.

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  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @CSK:

    GOP conference, evangelical groups, and Fox news also frequently present Jewish people who have converted to Christianity (i.e. Jews for Jesus types) as spokespeople for Judaism without disclosing they’ve left the religion.

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  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @CSK:

    No, Jesus was Irish:
    He worked in the building trades
    He thought his mom was a saint
    And the last thing he said before he died was to ask for a drink

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  24. CSK says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    😀

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  25. Michael Reynolds says:

    The one Asian person I know well, my daughter, is. . . well, try treating her as if she’s subservient. Bring a first aid kit.

    There is definitely a model minority thing which she experienced mostly from people who were disappointed that she wasn’t a math prodigy or a young Yo Yo Ma. Her live-in boyfriend (who my wife and I love) is Mexican-American, and my other daughter is trans. So, yeah, we won’t be moving to any red states.

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  26. Modulo Myself says:

    It sounds like this guy’s church was extremely warping regarding sex. These massage places are very marginal and the people who work there are extremely marginal. They have zero allies in the world. I don’t think this guy needed to hate Asian-Americans–although I’m sure he was happy to fetishize them–in order to make sex (and intimacy, basically) a dehumanizing and alienating act. He wasn’t hanging out in strip clubs and being really creepy and talking about how a stripper actually liked him. No, he was in strip malls slinking in and out like a serial killer, hating everything around him.

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  27. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    This reminds me of a former student of mine, Steven Wang, who was Korean-American on the maternal side and Chinese-American on the paternal side. (His email handle was “StevoStevo.”) He wrote something for me once–and I forget what precipitated this–but it ended with: “I’m not Chinese. I’m not Korean. I’m an American, goddammit!”

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  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: And adding to what you have noted, that significant numbers of people in and outside of the business community have been advocating the wisdom of learning to speak Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin as a future “essential skill” for students, particularly those wanting to hire into corporate and international business careers. Even in the whitest corner of Washington state, we have instruction in all three languages beginning in middle school. I think it’s great. Some of the other crackers around me are scratching their heads wondering what happened to “English is the international language of business,” though. Add that in the same cohort “violence is a tool that can be used to solve problems,” is still pretty common, and it’s not hard to start connecting what may at first seem to be random dots.

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  29. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Japanese or Korean is great. I’m a bit more mixed on Mandarin, given the Chinese government’s use of its growing economic clout to limit the civil liberties of other countries. We already have a growing problem with large US media companies self-censoring things to avoid angering Chinese officials. A few decades from now we could see a situation where your employability in the US is tied to how acceptable you are to Chinese politics.

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  30. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Specific example, there was a Taiwanese video game called “Devotion” that came out in 2019 that had an easteregg making a crack at a high ranking chinese official comparing him to a particular A. A. Miline character. It’s not available on any of the major digital platforms (Steam, Gog, Epic, etc.) because every time one of them agreed to distribute it, China would threaten to ban all of the company’s other games from China.

    I’m not looking forward to a world where everything works that way.

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  31. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Not to mention the whole Confucius Institute issue tied up in a lot of primary Mandarin language instruction (basically the Chinese Government is funding the instructors for a lot of these programs and there is a political element to the instruction they provide).

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  32. Mimai says:

    I just want to tip my hat to James for this post. I’m impressed by his continued willingness to put himself out there on these kind of things. It’s all the more impressive given that he’s often “punished” or condescended to when he does this. Would that we were all so willing.

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  33. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Is Japanese being pushed all that much at present? It was when I was growing up but I’m now an old fart (albeit fluent in Japanese) and it looks like Chinese and Korean are the hot languages to know for business. (I’ve tried learning Chinese and fugghetabahtit. I can half-read it/write it, so I guess if I ever visit again I’d better take a notepad and a magic marker.)

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  34. Stormy Dragon says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I don’t know, I was just responding to cracker’s post. Japan is probably not as trendy as Mandarin or Korean, but on the other hand, it is still the world’s third largest economy so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s taught.

    Thinking about it more, there’s also a question of why Chinese language education in the US is almost exclusively Mandarin and almost never Cantonese or Hokkien.

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  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: My understanding of what’s going on as a language education issue is that teachers of Japanese language (as opposed to Japanese language teachers) are difficult to find. My guess is that Japanese language didn’t take off as a study field–the students that I knew in teacher college and grad school who studied it uniformly failed to finish even a minor–and that native speakers can find jobs with more money and less stress than teaching foreign language–not a high bar to jump, BTW.

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  36. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher: My main reason for thinking he is a bottomless pit of disgustingness is the beard.

    I have a beard. Been wearing it ever since I collapsed my lung at the age of 29 and couldn’t shave for over a week, after which I said, “Screw that shit…”

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  37. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I don’t think Gus meant beards per se, but OMG that dweeb’s scraggly neck beard.

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  38. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I have many Asian friends. Collectively, they live in multiple states. At least half a dozen of them have experienced overt violence and/or bigotry. All of them know someone close to them who has.

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  39. Richard Gardner says:

    I’ve lived much on my life on the West Coast, and my University’s Engineering program was about 15% Vietnamese refugees (yes, we joked that the guy named Phuc needs to change his name). In 1984 I was on the East Coast and it was almost zero Asians in jobs other than Asian restaurants (but they discriminated against “Guese” Portuguese, Irish just slightly higher). I was amazed that East Coast folks didn’t know east Asians weren’t all the same (Japan, Korea, China, plus SE Asians, 4th Grade we learned all about Japan (and my city’s mayor was in the much decorated Japanese-American 442nd Division in Europe) and that I could usually tell them apart (Swede versus Italian (vice Northern IT that is German/Austrian). Also knowing folks from South Asia, I’m WTF on combining them with folks along the Western Pacific Ocean. Sorry, Folks from India/Pakistan are way different than China/Korea/Japan.

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  40. Kylopod says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    It’s modern use is primarily a way of advocating for Christian theocracy while pretending that you’re not trying to give Christianity special legal status.

    I forget who it was, but some years ago I remember a right-winger talking about “Judeo-Christian values,” then a moment later he simply said “Christian values.” He apparently forgot to add the qualifier the second time.

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  41. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    Sounds like Pat Buchanan. He’s always reminded me of a kid on the playground who said to me and my friend: “Nyah, nyah; you’re no good; you’re not Catholic.”

    You just know Buchanan’s really, really unhappy that everyone in the world isn’t Catholic.

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  42. Kylopod says:

    @CSK: I think I tracked down the comment I had in mind. It was by E.W. Jackson in 2018:

    “The floor of Congress is now going to look like an Islamic republic. We are a Judeo-Christian country. We are a nation rooted and grounded in Christianity and that’s that. And anybody that doesn’t like that, go live somewhere else. It’s very simple. Just go live somewhere else. Don’t try to change our country into some sort of Islamic republic or try to base our country on Sharia law.”

    Notice how he shifted in the space of one sentence from describing the US as “a Judeo-Christian country” to “a nation rooted and grounded in Christianity.”

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  43. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    Sounds a bit like the yokel who said that if English was good enough for Jesus Christ it was, by gum, good enough for him.

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  44. Stormy Dragon says:

    @CSK:

    That’s more than just a joke now. There is an actual movement in US Evangelicalism that the King James version of the Bible is the divinely inspired version of the canon and that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions were actually just part of God’s process for creating the “real” Bible.

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  45. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Basically, if someone was familiar with how messy the “editing” process for the Bible has been over the last 2,000 years, it becomes hard to take Biblical literalsim seriously. The King James Only movement provides a convenient excuse for ignoring all that, so it is popular with fundamentalists.

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