The Atlanta Massacre: Will the Real Narrative Please Stand Up?

I have to get this off my chest. Others have too, including this note from Andrew Sullivan that dropped Friday, and I feel compelled to do the same.

The shootings in Atlanta on March 16 that left eight people dead were tragic. I spent this morning reading about the family and friends of the victims trying to cope with these unimaginable losses. Randy and Eric Park grieved the loss of a loving mother, Hyun Jung Grant. Emily Tan, a Chinese immigrant, was remembered by friends as sweet, kind, giving and a hard worker. Deliana Ashley Yaun was remembered by her former manager at Waffle House as “one of the most hard-working, most determined, most outspokenly good-hearted persons I’ve ever met.”

There were five more like this, good people who were here one day — working, providing, living — and then gone the next.

But my anger and outrage at the murders were almost matched Friday evening when I watched the President and Vice-President stand before the cameras in Atlanta and proceed to lecture us about our role in the incident. President Biden mused that Americans may be “complicit” in the murders because we have been too silent about racism toward Asian-Americans.

“Because our silence is complicity,” he said. “We cannot be complicit. We have to speak out. We have to act.”

Vice-President Harris amped it up even more with some free-range polemics. “Racism is real in America, and it has always been,” she said, speaking before President Biden. “Xenophobia is real in America, and always has been. Sexism, too.”

Wait a minute, press the pause button. Let’s look at the facts of what’s going on here. The Atlanta shooter, Robert Aaron Long, is no Dylann Roof. There is no evidence from Long’s behavior or communication that this was a racially motivated rampage. By all accounts, he struggled with a sex obsession and viewed massage parlors, which he frequented, as sources of temptation. His parents kicked him out of the house for watching porn constantly. He checked himself into a halfway house to help with his self-described addiction. He felt like his obsession was a sin against his evangelical faith and every time he visited a spa he would come back and confess to friends. There is no evidence he ranted against Asians, women, the “Chinese flu” or acted out of any motive resembling racism, sexism or xenophobia.

But on Friday, President Biden told us that Asian-Americans have “been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed. They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed.” And Ms. Harris went further, as she usually does.

“Whatever the killer’s motive, these facts are clear,” she said. “Six out of the eight people killed on Tuesday night were of Asian descent. Seven were women. The shootings took place in businesses owned by Asian-Americans. The shootings took place as violent hate crimes and discrimination against Asian-Americans has risen dramatically over the last year.”

These are facts. Indeed, attacks against Asian-Americans are rising. There were 122 incidents of anti-Asian American hate crimes in 16 of the country’s most populous cities in 2020, an increase of almost 150% over the previous year, according to data compiled by California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

These are all disturbing acts and anyone who has seen the videos of some of these attacks is left revolted and incredulous.

But what the Biden-Harris team did is something more. Even before the yellow tape is being taken down in Atlanta, they are bolting the spa shootings on to a narrative of racism and xenophobia. Ms. Harris acknowledged the motives may not be clear and then like the prosecutor she used to be, made the incident Exhibit A in her racial critique of America.

Kit taught me a lot of things, and one of them is the difference between correlation and causation. Yes, the Atlanta victims were of Asian descent. Yes, they were women. But do those facts alone mean the murders were hate crimes directed specifically against Asians and women? The answer is obvious. That’s the difference between correlation and causation.

What’s going on here? A lot. But there are two things we should think about as this narrative develops in real time.

First, the media love a higher meaning, particularly if it fits a pre-existing narrative. “This is perfect,” says the editor. “It fits right into the Trump-fanned-the-flames-of-white-supremacism-Kung Flu-oppressed minority narrative.” I wrote about the media’s drift into narrative or “agenda” journalism earlier, and it’s in full force with the Atlanta incident, particularly at two standard-bearers, the Times and WaPo, as ably outlined in the aforementioned note by Sullivan. It would be appropriate for the media to make allusions to possible racist or xenophobic motives. But they jumped over any type of professional qualifications of that nature with the alacrity of a show horse in a steeplechase. And, of course, the media love “hot” stories that combine sensationalism and emotion, both of which are amplified on social media. So too, do the politicians that see an opportunity and fly to it like a moth to flame. A Georgia lawmaker said Friday that he felt “powerful and privileged” to be representing the Asian-American community at this time. Why is it all about him?

Here’s why this matters. If we’re going to be sincere and serious about racism, xenophobia and sexism in this country, we need to address it rigorously and factually.

Which brings us to our second point: elected officials have the responsibility of dispassionate leadership. Unlike us, they can command a microphone at will. But unlike us, they can’t just let their animal spirits run free. And unlike us, they have to draw the line between correlation and causation. Those obligations were overlooked in Atlanta on Friday night. The narrative has been set and given the imprimatur of the President of the United States.

Of course, on the extreme other hand, Atlanta law enforcement did not help set the proper frame by describing the incident as the result of Long having a “bad day.”

Here’s why all this matters. If we’re going to be sincere and serious about racism, xenophobia and sexism in this country, we need to address it rigorously and factually. Allowing the issue to expand beyond its factual boundaries — fed by innuendo, supposition and virtue-signaling — creates a social Petri dish where polarization thrives and healing is starved of its oxygen. In other words, we defeat the very purpose of the struggle against these social evils by corrupting the credibility of the narrative. Anybody remember the Tawana Brawley case?

I expect more of our elected officials. Leadership takes discipline, patience and judgment. None of those qualities were on display Friday in Atlanta.


  1. Well said. I saw this as jumping to conclusions, something that public officials should avoided. In defense of law enforcement, most of those interviewed have not done so and prosecutors are waiting until the investigation is complete. That is the right thing to do.

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