A year has passed since the Atlanta shootings left the city’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities reeling after a gunman attacked multiple Asian-owned businesses, killing eight people during his rampage, the majority of whom were Asian women of Korean and Chinese descent. The tragedy was a watershed moment for the nation, accentuating anti-Asian violence that had increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic but which had gone largely ignored by news media up until that point.
Despite the initial outpouring of consolation gestures and promises by local officials to protect Atlanta’s Asian populations, organizers say little support has materialized or been provided over the past year.
“During the time of the spa shootings, we saw this invigoration of elected officials wanting to talk with us and engage us and bring us into the conversation when it comes to racism and violence against the AAPI community,” said Suraiya Sharker, organizing director of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project (GMVP) who has been involved with multiple community groups serving AAPI-identifying individuals. “But there hasn’t been much tangible change, at least not on the statewide level, that we’ve seen.”
Some organizers described the Atlanta shootings as a “wake-up call” not only for non-Asians but also for those serving the community. According to Alnory Gutlay, who serves as vice president of health equity and access at Atlanta’s Center for Pan Asian Community Service (CPACS), the lack of a coordinated response in the immediate aftermath of the shootings left community members vulnerable in a time of extreme need.
“What we found was when last year happened, the community panicked,” said Gutlay.
The frenzied conditions following the attacks exposed the need for a stronger crisis response from Atlanta’s existing AAPI organizations. As a result, CPACS, which works primarily with refugees and immigrants, mobilized to create Stop AAPI Hate, a multilingual crisis resource and campaign funded through donations the organization received after the shootings.
The majority of engagement and support AAPI residents did receive in the aftermath largely came from community organizations already serving Atlanta’s AAPI communities, not from local officials. Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund in Georgia, says marginalized communities have always had to rely on community organizations as vital support sources, particularly in the South.
“Especially in a place like Georgia, where we have not historically had community services that cater to people who speak different languages, people who have different sorts of cultural or religious backgrounds,” Mahmood said, “I think community organizations have had to carry most of the burden over this past year.”
Among the community-driven support systems borne from the Atlanta tragedy is the AAPI Crime Victims and Education Fund, a fundraising initiative to provide financial support to those who identify as AAPI and have been victimized in race-based crimes. The fund is also meant to support educational and awareness programs aimed at reducing racialized violence against the community. As the first fund to provide support for AAPI-identifying crime victims, the resource was launched by a group of Asian lawyers in Atlanta with support from legal organizations like the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Korean-American Bar Association of Georgia.
According to the fund’s website, AAPI organizations receive a disproportionately low amount of funding. Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, a national philanthropy group, states that only 0.2%, or 20 cents for every $100, of grants nationwide went to serving AAPI-focused causes in 2018, even though AAPI make up 7% of the U.S. population as of 2020 and are the fastest-growing minority group in the country.
That lack of established support for AAPI organizations extends to education efforts, which in turn can influence how AAPI individuals are perceived by people outside of these communities.
“I think a big part of the anti-Asian sentiment and violence has been that people don’t understand where our communities have come from,” said Mahmood. “They don’t understand the history of Asian Americans in this country.”
Mahmood noted that educational awareness is crucial in places like Georgia where there may not be a well-known history of Asian populations, compared to states like California. Mahmood says her organization is pushing to build local support for an in-depth ethnic studies curriculum to be taught in Georgia’s schools, among other efforts.
But discriminatory violence against AAPI goes beyond racism, particularly for women and femmes. To Gutlay and her CPACS team, which serves a clientele that includes domestic violence victims, the Atlanta attacks were clearly a form of racial and gendered violence.
“For us, it’s like this has been happening in our community,” said Gutlay. “It was just … there was no focus on it prior.”
Gender-based violence against AAPI women and femmes is seldom talked about even as they are racially profiled and, as a result, often hypersexualized. A 2017 report by the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence found that 23% of Asian and Pacific Islander women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime while 21% have encountered non-contact unwanted sexual experiences, which refers to harassment without touching or penetration, such as someone exposing their sexual body parts or masturbating in front of the victim.
In the aftermath of the Atlanta shootings, many experts pointed to a link between the historical fetishization of AAPI women and femmes and the misogynistic violence they are subjected to. The shootings, together with the pandemic’s racialized violence against AAPI women and femmes—including the highly publicized murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee earlier this year—have amplified the need for nuanced conversations around anti-Asian racism.
During the pandemic, East Asian women and femmes were the most likely victims of anti-Asian hate, with 67.6% of reported hate incidents against AAPI women experienced by East Asian women, according to a joint report by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and the Stop AAPI Hate coalition. The coalition is separate from the campaign under CPACS, but the two entities work together as part of a national movement on Stop AAPI Hate.
“I don’t think there’s been enough work happening around economic justice for AAPI women [who] I’ve seen, particularly for AAPI women who are [low-wage] professionals,” said Sharker of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project. “I think overall, there needs to be more work done when it comes to that economic justice piece.”
Beyond expanding educational outreach, organizations are looking for more governmental support and funding to provide language-accessible trauma-informed services for Atlanta’s AAPI communities, a key support piece that is still severely lacking.
“There’s definitely a lack of access for mental health services, especially in language services for our community members,” said Gutlay of CPACS, which provides services in 18 different languages. “Even in-house we speak so many [languages] and it’s because ‘Asian,’ if you break it down by ethnicity, is a much bigger group.”
Despite the lack of support, AAPI community organizations in Atlanta will continue to serve residents as best they can, long after the memory of the tragic shootings has faded from national attention. Mahmood says she doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.
“I think that until we really get the right people in office, I don’t know that we’ll be able to really have an expectation that local or state governments will be able to provide these sorts of resources,” she said.