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Suspect in Atlanta-area attacks said they weren't racially motivated. Experts say he doesn't get to decide.

"You can't ask perpetrators what they think," one expert said. "That's not how we determine whether something is or isn't a hate crime."
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The white man charged Wednesday with killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area spas told authorities he was not driven by bigotry and that he had a "sexual addiction" and saw the businesses as "a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate," investigators said.

Capt. Jay Baker, the director of communications of the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office in Georgia, sparked outrage when he said at a news conference Wednesday that the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, 21, had had "a really bad day" Tuesday, "and this is what he did."

On Thursday, the sheriff's office acknowledged that Baker's comments "have become the subject of much debate and anger" and claimed they "were not intended to disrespect any of the victims, the gravity of this tragedy, or express empathy or sympathy for the suspect."

Investigators said they had not ruled out a racial motive, and experts say they should not.

"You can't ask perpetrators what they think," said Elaine Gross, president of the New York-based civil rights organization ERASE Racism. "That's not how we determine whether something is or isn't a hate crime."

If Long "had a bad day," she asked, "then why wasn't there a variety" among the victims? "That has to count for something."

Determining what constitutes a hate crime is not simple or easy, Gross said. But it cannot be ignored that most of those killed in the rampage were women of Asian descent.

"There's been a tendency not to call things hate crimes to want to avoid that categorization," she said. "And I think part of that is because they're looking for explicit intent, which might not be immediately evident."

Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., took it a step further Wednesday, saying "the default position when violence is committed against people of color or women is to defer from confronting the hate that is often the motivation."

"Racially motivated violence must be called out for exactly what it is, and we must stop making excuses or rebranding it as economic anxiety or sexual addiction," Strickland said on the floor of Congress. "As a woman who is Black and Korean, I am acutely aware of how it feels to be erased or ignored."

Georgia had been one of a few states without any hate crime legislation protecting specific groups until last summer after Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was shot by armed white men. The law added penalties for crimes motivated by a person's race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

Authorities in Georgia also should take into account the broader context, Gross and others said: an increase in anti-Asian American violence across the country.

"The larger context, we know that this has been the targeting of Asians from the highest office under the previous administration," Gross said, referring to former President Donald Trump who used racist slurs to describe the coronavirus. "So that has been the immediate impact from what I see. Targeting Asians even if they're not killing them. Targeting them for abuse and violence."

In a statement Wednesday, Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, said that while details of the shootings are still emerging, the broader context cannot be ignored.

"The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fueled by white supremacy and systemic racism," the organization said.

Gross said authorities need to consider not just a person's actions, but also their intent. In this case, authorities should not take the word of the suspect in the killings and not consider the victims, she said.

Activist and writer Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an NBC and MSNBC contributor, said Thursday that you don't need a person's permission to categorize their actions as racist or biased.

"If Asian women are targeted as a 'temptation' you feel the need to 'eliminate,' you're a racist" misogynist, she tweeted. "We shouldn't have to say this."

Steven Freeman, vice president of civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League, said the reason why some crimes are charged as hate crimes is because there's an impact that's broader than an individual victim. "It impacts communities, it impacts neighborhoods, it impacts cities" as we're seeing in Atlanta, he said.

"But you still have to be able to show by the criminal standards that you need to meet that the selection or the targeting took place for those reasons," he said.

Freeman agreed with Gross that on its face, the shootings in Atlanta should be investigated as a series of hate crimes. He also said that hate crime laws are not mainly intended for murder cases where it would add a couple of years to the sentence of a person who could already face lengthy jail time.

"I think it's more about the way it is described than it is about the criminal justice piece of it," he said. "Whether or not they can make out the legal charges, these acts are having an impact similar to what a hate crime would have on a community, and city officials need to understand the vulnerability people are feeling and the sense of anger that people are feeling, and speak to that and commit to that and be aware of that in a sensitive kind of way."