Excerpted From: Caitlin Ramiro, After Atlanta: Revisiting the Legal System's Deadly Stereotypes of Asian American Women, 29 Asian American Law Journal 90 (2022) (316 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CaitlinRamiroOn March 16, 2021, a 21-year-old white man shot and killed eight individuals at a massage spa in Atlanta (the Atlanta Shooting). Six of the eight victims were Asian American women. Consequently, questions were raised as to whether this attack was motivated by race, gender, or both. The perpetrator asserted that the attacks were not racially motivated and claimed his motive stemmed from sex addiction. He viewed the massage spa as a sexual “temptation” that he wanted to eliminate. The Asian American women were simply collateral.

Others, however, including prominent politicians, vehemently rejected the perpetrator's self-proclaimed motive. These commenters concluded that the perpetrator intentionally chose several Asian-owned massage spas with predominantly Asian American women workers. Their view was that the number of Asian American women among the victims showed animus against Asian American women and was a reflection of the alarming rise of anti-Asian violence. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a reported number of 10,370 anti-Asian hate crimes. Notably, most of these victims are Asian American women.

Research suggests that the recent resurgence in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States is due to the Trump Administration's anti-Asian rhetoric. For almost a year, former President Donald Trump wielded the coronavirus's Chinese origins and repeatedly referred to the disease as the “Kung Flu” and “China Virus.” Many criticized President Trump's usage of these terms because it pushes the narrative that Asians are perpetually foreign, dirty, and prone to disease. These critics argue that anti-Asian language often encourages violent attacks against Asians. Even if this is true, President Trump's racial epithets are gender neutral and do not explain why Asian American women made up 68% of the reported attacks during the coronavirus pandemic compared to 29% of Asian American men. Legal history, however, can help provide more understanding.

To better understand and prevent violence against Asian American women, we must first analyze the legal system's complicity in perpetuating harmful stereotypes--widely held ideas that all Asian American women are submissive, hyper-sexualized, and morally corrupt figures. While legal discourse involving Asian American women is scarce, discrimination against Asian American women is not new. Problematic images of Asian American women have origins in and continue within the U.S. legal system in its courts, through the disparate treatment of Asian female litigants, and through anti-Asian laws. These images ultimately culminate in the degradation of and discrimination and violence against Asian American women. Stereotypes carry an incredible force in shaping societal attitudes, which inevitably impact the dehumanization of Asian American women. They can also impact how courts decide cases involving Asian American women. By applying a critical intersectional lens, the legal system can better recognize racialized sexual violence and protect Asian American women. When laws, court systems, or public officers dehumanize Asian American women, they become particularly vulnerable to racialized and sexualized violence. The legal system should better understand its role in perpetuating deadly stereotypes of Asian American women and deconstruct these images. The legal system's understanding of these stereotypes can help protect Asian American women from racialized and sexualized violence.

This Essay examines the problematic and stereotypical manner in which the legal system has treated Asian American women. It argues that an intersectional framework can help the legal system better understand and protect Asian American women. This Essay also calls for a recognition that these stereotypes exist and an unequivocal rejection of them. Part I of this Essay discusses the prevailing stereotypes of Asian American women and how they came to fruition. Part II explores the historical treatment of Asian American women. Part III discusses contemporary cases involving Asian American women. Part IV introduces an intersectional framework for deconstructing these dangerous stereotypes in the legal system. Given the impact of these stereotypes, this last section argues that an intersectional framework is crucial for addressing racialized and sexualized violence against Asian American women.

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The Atlanta Shooting shocked the nation, but the tragedy also demands a racial reckoning within the legal system. Given the historical treatment and sexualized stereotypes of Asian American women, the Atlanta Shooting was indeed about racialized and sexualized violence against Asian American women. The continuing violence against Asian American women demands a closer look at the prevailing attitudes of them. The U.S. legal system must reject the problematic stereotypes of Asian American women that pervade its courts and laws. To do this, the U.S. legal system must address its historical role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Asian American women and unequivocally reject these images in its laws and courts. An intersectional analysis about race, gender, and national origin would allow courts to better understand racialized and sexualized violence against Asian American women. Courts, lawyers, and public officials must look to the past, remember the historical dehumanization of Asian American women, and vow to condemn the dangerous images of the Lotus Blossom and Dragon Lady. When the legal system upholds problematic stereotypes of marginalized groups, the consequences are dangerous and sometimes fatal, as seen in the Atlanta Shooting. The legal system must help protect Asian American women from violence and injustice through the rejection of these problematic stereotypes. The lives of Asian American women depend on it.

Fordham University School of Law, Class of 2022.