Atlanta (AFP) -
The shooting rampage in Atlanta by a 21-year-old white man that left six women of Asian origin dead has laid bare fears among an Asian-American community on edge over a surge in hate crimes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
'It's heartbreaking,' said Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential hopeful who is now running for mayor of New York.
'I've been Asian all my life, and I remember -- vividly -- growing up with this constant sense of invisibility, mockery, disdain, a sense that you cannot be American if you have an Asian face,' Yang said.
'But this has metastasized into something new and deadly and virulent and hateful,' he said at a press conference in New York alongside the Black civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
The White House announced that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who were already scheduled to be in Atlanta on Friday, will meet with Asian-American leaders there to 'discuss the ongoing attacks and threats against the community.'
Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, Georgia, faces eight counts of murder and one charge of aggravated assault for Tuesday's shootings at three Atlanta massage parlors, in which six of the eight people killed were women of Asian descent.
Long has admitted carrying out the attacks according to law enforcement but claims he was not motivated by racial hatred.
While the gunman's motive is yet to be fully understood, the shootings struck a chord in a country where hate crimes against Asian-Americans have been on the rise.
'For many Asian-Americans, Tuesday's shocking events felt like the inevitable culmination of a year in which there were nearly 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate incidents,' said Representative Steve Cohen at a House subcommittee hearing in Washington on Thursday.
Anti-Asian incidents have grown 'increasingly more violent over time as the Covid-19 pandemic worsened,' Cohen, a Democratic lawmaker from Tennessee, said.
The surge, he said, had been fueled by references to the 'China virus' -- a term often used by Donald Trump although Cohen did not cite the former president by name.
- 'Latent anti-Asian prejudices' -
Long, who the authorities said had previously frequented the massage parlors, had been scheduled to make his initial court appearance on Thursday but it was cancelled.
According to the sheriff's office, 'Long told investigators that he blames the massage parlors for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex' and the shootings were not racially motivated.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Long's claims should be taken 'with a grain of salt' and it was 'difficult to ignore' that most of the victims were of Asian descent.
Sarah Park, president of the Korean American Coalition-Metro Atlanta, said racism was clearly a factor. 'Yes it is a hate crime against Asian-Americans,' Park said.
Among those testifying before the House panel were four members of Congress of Asian origin.
'Asian-Americans must not be used as scapegoats in times of crisis -- lives are at stake,' said Judy Chu, a Democrat from California. 'It's critical that Congress takes bold action to address this pandemic of discrimination and hate.'
Cohen, the subcommittee chairman, said Asian-Americans have been subjected to 'verbal harassment, being spat at, slapped in the face, lit on fire, slashed with a box cutter or shoved violently to the ground.'
He said the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than half a million Americans dead, had exacerbated 'latent anti-Asian prejudices that have a long, long and ugly history in America.'
The ranking Republican on the panel, Chip Roy of Texas, said the victims of the Atlanta shootings deserve justice but expressed concern about 'policing' the right to voice criticism of China's communist leadership.
Roy's remarks drew an angry response from Meng, a Democrat from New York.
'Your president, and your party, and your colleagues can talk about issues with any other country that you want, but you don't have to do it by putting a bull's eye on the back of Asian-Americans across this country, on our grandparents, on our kids,' Meng said.
'This hearing was to address the pain of our community and to find solutions and we will not let you take our voice away.'
- 'Must stop' -
Vigils were held in several US cities on Wednesday to mourn the victims of the shootings and condemn racially motivated violence.
Police in New York, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and other major cities stepped up patrols in areas with large Asian-American populations.
Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House and other public buildings until sunset on Monday as a mark of respect for the Atlanta victims.
Biden said that while the motive has not yet been fully established 'what we do know is that the Asian-American community is feeling enormous pain.'
'The recent attacks against the community are un-American,' he tweeted. 'They must stop.'
Georgia is home to nearly 500,000 people of Asian origin, or just over four percent of its population, according to the Asian American Advocacy Fund.