Awareness must bring change: Atlanta shootings stir up strong reactions from students, faculty

Margaret Woo, law professor and former trustee of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, poses for a portrait. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Not again.

Not another attack on our community, thought law professor Margaret Woo after reading a text from her brother last week. The message said something about a shooting near Atlanta that killed several people. Police have since confirmed that six of the eight were women of Asian descent, including four Koreans.

Law enforcement authorities in Georgia have yet to label it a hate crime, a posture that has aggravated the fear and grave injury in Asian communities. President Biden in a March 19 statement said: “While we do not yet know motive, we condemn in the strongest possible terms the ongoing crisis of gender-based and anti-Asian violence that has long plagued our nation.”

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, said anti-Asian violence and harassment were antithetical to the university’s core values. “As a global community, we welcome and celebrate people from all backgrounds and ethnicities,” he said in a statement.

But not everyone shares in that sentiment. To Woo, who teaches comparative law, administrative law, and civil procedure at Northeastern, whether or not the shootings are found to be hate crimes, the attacks follow a long pattern of mistreatment, taunts, and jeers.


“Politicians must bring awareness to growing issues before tragedies like this happen,” says Claire Blaufox, a third-year chemical engineering major and president of Northeastern's Chinese Student Association. Courtesy photo

Woo, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Boston as a child, recalled her own encounter with discrimination in September of 2019 while out with her dog in the culturally-mixed Jamaica Plain section of the city. “It almost brought me to tears,” she remembers. “Emotions from these micro-aggressions never completely go away.”

It was a time during the pandemic when phrases like “the Chinese virus” were shared on social media feeds and condemned by many as a pejorative.

“When my leashed dog curiously sniffed near a biker’s backpack, I was told to get the [expletive] away and that I should return to my home country,” she wrote in a letter published in a community newspaper and shared with News@Northeastern.

A 1993 Supreme Court ruling made hate crimes eligible for longer prison sentences, says Michael Meltsner, the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews distinguished university professor of law. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“My aggressor was a tall, white, blonde male with rolled up sleeves and wearing a blue-striped button-down shirt. He looked like a young professional, and very self-important in talking on his cellphone and leaning against his bike,” Woo says.

She took his photo and reported the encounter to police, but nothing ever came of it. “The police didn’t take down a report,” she says in an online interview. “They said it was a verbal encounter and nobody was hurt, and that was it.” But these verbal encounters add up to give cover to bigger threats, she adds.

As a step forward, Woo would like to see a return to community policing and the reassuring feeling of safety that comes with a cop-on-the-corner presence. She also thinks law enforcement could be better trained to understand that Asians are not a monolith and that discrimination is a real problem.

“The race issue has primarily been seen as between Black and white, and I think it’s time to recognize that there are more colors in between,” she says.

Claire Blaufox, a third-year chemical engineering major and president of Northeastern’s Chinese Student Association, isn’t so sure that police are the answer.

She cited news reports of a Chinese American teen, Christian Hall, who was shot and killed by Pennsylvania law enforcement in December during an apparent mental health episode. Police say he pointed a gun at them.

“Personally, I’m not so sure that I trust the police,” Blaufox says. “I wouldn’t want them to interfere and have another innocent body brutalized. We’ve seen this happen to Black and brown bodies.”

Asian women like her, she adds, find it difficult to speak to people in positions of power for fear of not being believed or taken seriously.

“When we do advocate for ourselves, we’re then told that whatever it is we’ve been going through isn’t real, it’s in our head, or it’s just this one person who is having a bad day,” Blaufox says, referring to the phrase used by a Georgia police official to describe the 21-year-old gunman in the massage parlor killings. The remark triggered an immediate backlash.

Blaufox was returning home from co-op in August of 2020 when she remembers a man walking up to her in the Boston subway system. “He tried to grab me and he’s shouting slurs,” she says. Blaufox didn’t bother reporting it to the police. She carries pepper spray since the incident. 

Elected officials, more than law enforcement, can help by making the public aware that discriminatory incidents are real, Blaufox adds. Political leaders are also in a position to create the long-term change that’s needed to prevent the Atlanta homicide story from fading away.

“Politicians must bring awareness to growing issues before tragedies like this happen,” she says. “And when they do, they must use the momentum and the emotional energy to educate themselves and others and create structural change.” 

There were more than 3,700 anti-Asian incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021. That compares to about 3,300 for all of 2020. Women reported more than twice as many hate-related instances as men. 

“The number of hate incidents reported to our center represent only a fraction of the number of hate incidents that actually occur, but it does show how vulnerable Asian Americans are to discrimination,” the group says on its site.

Anti-Asian violence has always existed and is cyclical, but it requires a stimulus, Woo, the Northeastern law professor, points out.

“It pops up especially during periods of economic and political strain when the blame is directed at Asians,” she says, citing the 1800s when Chinese immigrants came to the United States for low-wage jobs to the Vietnam War through trade disputes with Japan.

The Northeastern law school’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association pinpoints COVID-19 for the latest aggressions, saying in a statement that hate crimes are escalating in number and severity. “They have been fueled by anti-Asian rhetoric around the coronavirus pandemic,” the group says.

A law school graduate, Elaine Song, once wrote a report, To Live in Peace…Responding to anti-Asian violence in Boston. It was dedicated to a 27-year-old Chinese American from Michigan who, according to the publication, was beaten to death with a baseball bat on the eve of his wedding. Song’s report is dated October 1987.

Up until last year, Georgia was one of a few states that didn’t have a hate crimes law. That changed after Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot dead after being chased by three white men in February of 2020. The high-profile case prompted the state legislature to act, and the Georgia spa shootings are the law’s first real test.

But hate crimes statutes differ among states, and not all of them cover transgender people, says Michael Meltsner, the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews distinguished professor of law at Northeastern. Elevating a charge to a hate crime increases the length of time behind bars because of a 1993 Supreme Court ruling in Wisconsin v. Mitchell.

The high court upheld a Wisconsin hate crime statute that allowed longer prison times if a criminal chose their victim on the basis of race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry. The case stemmed from an assault by a group of young Black men on a 14-year-old white boy in October of 1989.

But bias cases are also implemented to varying degrees, leading to under-enforcement, Meltsner points out.

“Police would have to identify it and the prosecution would have to advance it and make the proof,” says Meltsner. “We find that this doesn’t happen nearly as often as hate crimes are committed, so the real problem is enforcement.”

Given the widespread media coverage of the massage salon case, Meltsner sees a situation where the Justice Department potentially takes on a larger role. He pointed to the fact that within days of the shootings the Biden administration sent legislation to Congress that would expedite the federal government’s response to the rise of hate crimes during the pandemic. The measure would also support state and local governments to improve hate crimes reporting.

“That’s a heartening step in the right direction,” Meltsner adds.

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